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

Calcium and heart disease: What is the connection?

Calcium supplements do not seem to increase the risk of heart disease. But it’s best to get the recommended daily intake of this mineral (which ranges from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, depending on age and gender) from foods rather than pills. Potential calcium sources include dairy products, canned salmon or sardines with bones, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Figs, broccoli, and kale also provide modest amounts of calcium. (Locked) More »

What you may not know about your heart

Although cardiovascular disease is diagnosed later in women than men, it can begin to develop in early adulthood. The disease is more likely to affect the heart’s network of microscopic vessels and to have more subtle symptoms in women. (Locked) More »

When the heart’s smallest vessels cause big problems

Damage to the smallest blood vessels that feed the heart is known as coronary microvascular disease. For unknown reasons, it is far more common in women than men. The symptoms are similar to those of classic coronary artery disease, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. But microvascular disease is far more difficult to diagnose and may require specialized stress tests that include a PET or MRI scan. These tests can assess “coronary flow reserve,” a measure of how well the heart can augment its blood supply in response to stress.  (Locked) More »