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

A closer look at heart disease risk

Sometimes the presence of atherosclerosis, the disease underlying most heart attacks, is not clear or easily recognized, especially before a heart attack or other crisis happens. In those instances, doctors may rely on a coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan, which measures the amount of calcium in the heart’s arteries, high levels of which are associated with cardiovascular disease. The CAC results can help predict a person’s risk for heart attack or stroke, even if that person doesn’t have obvious risk factors or symptoms. (Locked) More »

Can vitamin K supplements help protect against heart disease?

Some research has suggested that eating foods rich in vitamin K, which helps the body make blood clotting proteins, can protect against heart disease. However, vitamin K supplements have not shown the same benefit and are not recommended for preventing heart disease. (Locked) More »

Confused about eating soy?

Eating soy may not help your heart, but it won’t hurt your heart. It’s high in polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and it’s low in saturated fat. More »

Can you make up for years of poor eating?

Atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) may be reversible through intensive lifestyle changes, but because the process is highly challenging, experts say it’s preferable to focus on preventing new damage to avoid a cardiovascular crisis, such as a heart attack or stroke. More »

Deterring heart disease if you have diabetes

Three newer medications for type 2 diabetes, empagliflozin (Jardiance), canagliflozin (Invokana) and liraglutide (Victoza), appear to lower the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease in addition to lowering blood sugar. Empagliflozin and canagliflozin, which improve diabetes by helping the body release more sugar into the urine, seem to be especially helpful for decreasing heart failure cases. Liraglutide lowers blood sugar by preventing the liver from making too much sugar and helping the pancreas produce more insulin. It reduced serious heart events by 13% and deaths from heart disease by 22%. People with type 2 diabetes and heart disease who are having trouble reaching their HbA1c targets may want to discuss these new medications with their doctors. (Locked) More »

Dog owners: Less heart disease and longer life?

People (especially those who live alone) who own dogs may be less likely to die from heart disease than those without dogs. Dogs may ease stress and inspire people to be more active and socially connected—all things that seem to foster heart health. More »

Opening up arteries to treat stable angina: Just a sham?

Chest pain occurring with physical activity or emotional stress that quickly goes away with rest is known as stable angina. Treatments include medications (including drugs such as beta blockers and nitrates) or an artery-opening procedure known as angioplasty with a stent. Although a study suggested that a stent was no better than a sham procedure for stable angina, experts say the trial was too short and too small to conclude that stents don’t work for stable angina. (Locked) More »