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

Sugar’s not-so-sweet effects on the heart

A sugary diet contributes to weight gain and other factors that boost heart disease risk, including inflammation, disrupted blood sugar control, and increased cholesterol. The typical American diet is very high in added sugar, nearly half of which comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. Another 30% comes from baked goods such as cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries. People don’t need to completely give up sweet treats but should enjoy them just once or twice a week rather than daily. (Locked) More »

Treatments for a stiff, narrow aortic valve

There are a number of treatments for a stiff, narrow aortic valve. They include open heart surgery to replace the defective valve, a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) to replace the valve, or medicine. Doctors say surgery or TAVR are equally good choices. TAVR is less invasive than surgery and appears to work as well as surgery in both the short and long term. Medicines alone, while an attractive option, may be the worst choice. (Locked) More »

Can stronger muscles pump up your heart health?

Just like aerobic exercise, targeted exercises to strengthen muscles throughout your body may also help stave off heart disease. Strength training helps burn calories and may help prevent harmful belly fat accumulation. Muscle tissue is more metabolically active, so it helps control blood sugar and lowers insulin resistance. That helps prevent type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease. Strength training can be done with resistance bands, small hand weights, or weight machines. More »

New hope for an unusual form of heart failure

Long summary: Up to 15% of people with a stiff, thickened heart (known as heart failure with preserved ejection fraction) may have cardiac amyloidosis. Advances in cardiac imaging have improved the ability to diagnose the condition, which is caused by clumps of an abnormal protein (amyloid) deposited in heart tissue. Most cases are known as ATTR amyloidosis, which has an inherited form and a non-inherited form. Tafamidis (Vyndaqel), the first drug to treat ATTR cardiac amyloidosis, was approved by the FDA last year. (Locked) More »

Take monitors to heart

A heart rate monitor can be a valuable fitness tool by helping people exercise better, smarter, and safer. Wearing the device can increase motivation, improve exercise benefits by ensuring workouts reach sufficient intensity, and help people with heart issues watch their exertion levels more closely. (Locked) More »

The high cost of a poor diet

What people choose to eat has a big impact on their cardiovascular health. The dietary habits of the nation as a whole also have a major effect on the country’s economic health. About 45% of the costs associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes is related to unhealthy diets. The dietary habits that appear to have the biggest effect are not eating enough nuts, seeds, and seafood omega-3 fatty acids. Among foods to avoid, sugary beverages and processed meats seem to contribute the most to higher costs. Each year, unhealthy diets cost the United States an average of about $300 per person in medical costs, which translates to $50 billion nationwide. (Locked) More »

Can lifestyle changes affect atrial fibrillation?

For moderate to heavy drinkers with atrial fibrillation or afib, drinking less alcohol may help delay the time to a recurrence of the heart rhythm disorder. Alcohol may harm heart muscle cells, which can lead to changes in the heart’s blood flow and electrical activity. Binge drinking can trigger an episode of afib, a phenomenon known as holiday heart syndrome. And longtime heavy drinkers face a heightened risk of cardiomyopathy. (Locked) More »