Heart Disease

The heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body. This steady flow carries with it oxygen, fuel, hormones, other compounds, and a host of essential cells. It also whisks away the waste products of metabolism. When the heart stops, essential functions fail, some almost instantly.

Given the heart's never-ending workload, it's a wonder it performs so well, for so long, for so many people. But it can also fail, brought down by a poor diet and lack of exercise, smoking, infection, unlucky genes, and more.

A key problem is atherosclerosis. This is the accumulation of pockets of cholesterol-rich gunk inside the arteries. These pockets, called plaque, can limit blood flow through arteries that nourish the heart — the coronary arteries — and other arteries throughout the body. When a plaque breaks apart, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Although many people develop some form of cardiovascular disease (a catch-all term for all of the diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels) as they get older, it isn't inevitable. A healthy lifestyle, especially when started at a young age, goes a long way to preventing cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle changes and medications can nip heart-harming trends, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, in the bud before they cause damage. And a variety of medications, operations, and devices can help support the heart if damage occurs.

Heart diseases include:

  • coronary artery disease: the accumulation of cholesterol-filled plaque in the arteries that nourish heart muscle
  • heart attack (myocardial infarction): the sudden stopping of blood flow to part of the heart muscle
  • heart failure: the inability of the heart to pump as forcefully or efficiently as needed to supply the body with oxygenated blood
  • heart rhythm disorders: heartbeats that are too fast, too slow, or irregular
  • heart valve disorders: problems with the valves that control blood flow from one part of the heart to another part of the heart or to the body.
  • sudden cardiac arrest: the sudden cessation of the heartbeat
  • cardiomyopathy: a disease of the heart muscle that causes the heart to become abnormally enlarged, thickened, and/or stiffened
  • pericarditis: inflammation of the pericardium, a thin sac that surrounds the heart
  • myocarditis: inflammation of the myocardium, the middle layer of the heart wall
  • congenital heart disease: heart diseases or abnormalities in the heart's structure that occur before birth

Heart Disease Articles

FDA deems trans fats unsafe

Trans fats should be taken off the list of additives “generally recognized as safe,” according to an FDA proposal. Found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, these fats raise levels of unhealthy fats in the blood, contributing to heart disease. Most companies have already removed trans fats from their products, but they still lurk in many processed foods, including cookies and other baked treats, frozen pizza, and microwave popcorn. (Locked) More »

Answers about aspirin

Aspirin prevents platelets from clumping together in the bloodstream and forming a clot, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke. That’s why most people with heart disease should take a daily low-dose aspirin. But aspirin can also cause gastrointestinal bleeding. For some people, that danger outweighs the drug’s heart-protecting effects. Although taking heartburn medications and other strategies can lower the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, some people should not take daily aspirin. A conversation with a trusted doctor is the best way to determine whether to take aspirin, when, what kind, and how much.  More »

Ask the doctor: Carotid artery narrowing

Narrowing of the carotid arteries can restrict blood flow to the brain and increase the risk of stroke. Treatments include surgery or stent placement, but this usually is done only if the artery is blocked by more than 70% or there are symptoms.  (Locked) More »

Coconut oil: Supervillain or superfood?

Once demonized as a harmful “bad” fat, coconut oil is now a popular item on grocery store shelves. Nothing has changed about the composition of coconut oil—it is still contains about 90% saturated fat—but experts say that the substance is okay in small amounts. However, vegetable oils such as soy, olive, and canola are still the best choice for improving heart health because they lower “bad” LDL cholesterol as well as boost “good” HDL. In baking, coconut oil gains a slight edge over these oils as a substitute for butter or margarine because of its solid consistency at room temperature. (Locked) More »

Research we're watching: Surgery after a stent: How risky?

Within two years of getting a stent, about one in five people needs noncardiac surgery. Only those who needed emergency surgery or who had advanced heart disease faced a higher risk of a major cardiac event during that surgery, according to a new study. (Locked) More »

Try this to lower your blood pressure

It appears that monitoring blood pressure at home helps control hypertension better than just a doctor visit. Harvard experts say it’s because of two important factors. One, paying more attention to blood pressure levels helps people know when their blood pressure is elevated, which makes them more likely to ask for adjustments in medications. Two, home monitoring encourages people to become partners in the management of their blood pressure, which means they’ll be more likely to exercise and reduce salt intake, which are also important to lower high blood pressure. (Locked) More »