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

Premature heart disease

  Coronary artery disease is the biggest cause of heart attacks in younger men, but other causes include defective arteries, clot disorders, and drug abuse.   More »

Blood pressure and your brain

  High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke and plays a role in cognitive decline. Simple lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, and losing weight can lower blood pressure.   More »

Peripheral artery disease: Leg pain and much more

Peripheral artery disease gets less attention than strokes or heart attacks, but like those conditions it is a cardiovascular condition caused by blockages in the arteries, in this case the ones that supply blood to the legs and other parts of the body. (Locked) More »

Ask the doctor: Is bundle branch block serious?

I had an electrocardiogram in preparation for minor surgery. My doctor told me it showed that I have right bundle branch block. Neither he nor my cardiologist are worried about it, but I am. Is this serious? (Locked) More »

New view of heart disease in women

A landmark study found that women are susceptible to a different type of heart disease called microvascular dysfunction. It affects both larger and smaller blood vessels, but is not detected by the standard cardiac tests. More »

Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women

We've come a long way since the days when a woman's worry over heart disease centered exclusively on its threat to the men in her life. We now know it's not just a man's problem. Every year, coronary heart disease, the single biggest cause of death in the United States, claims women and men in nearly equal numbers. In a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, about half of the women interviewed knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, yet only 13% said it was their greatest personal health risk. If not heart disease, then what? Other survey data suggest that on a day-to-day basis, women still worry more about getting breast cancer — even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year. Why the disconnect? Breast cancer affects body image, sexuality, and self-esteem in ways that a diagnosis of heart disease does not. Also, heart disease tends to show up at an older age (on average, a woman's first heart attack occurs at age 70), so the threat may not seem all that real to younger women. Most 50-year-old women know women their age who've had breast cancer but none who've had heart disease. More »

Exercise and your arteries

Regular exercise is crucial to keeping the circulatory system functioning optimally, which in turn is beneficial to overall health and protection from heart disease. (Locked) More »