Heart Health

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 Health Articles

Cholesterol testing at home: It may be faster, but is it better?

If you don't mind pricking a finger, you can check your cholesterol without sitting around in a doctor's waiting room or laboratory. Devices available in pharmacies or through the Internet make this easy to do at home. But is it worth doing? The makers of home cholesterol tests rightly tout their products as faster than visiting a doctor. You prick your finger, gently squeeze a few drops of blood onto a test strip or into a small "well," and you get the results in a few minutes, instead of waiting a few days. But faster isn't necessarily better. The results won't give you the information you need to figure out your risk of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular problem. Nor will they help you check whether a diet and exercise program is working. More »

Emergencies and First Aid - Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

When you are alone and have to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), your primary effort should be compressing the chest to help the person's heart pump blood. If there is a second person helping, providing breaths can be done at the same time as compressions are performed. The brief review of CPR on the following pages can help you in an emergency; however, this information should not take the place of a certified course in CPR. Immediate care Assess the situation. Call out for someone to get help or call 911 yourself if the person does not seem to need immediate assistance. You can determine this by gently shaking the person and asking in a loud voice, "“Are you OK?"” If there is no response, begin CPR and continue until help arrives. More »

Resistant hypertension needs special attention

At least half of the 80 million Americans with high blood pressure don't have it under control. Sometimes poor control stems from lack of trying. A growing number of people, though, have what's called resistant hypertension — blood pressure that stays stubbornly above the target (see "Blood pressure goals") in spite of lifestyle changes and medications. Persistently high blood pressure is a problem. It is a key contributor to stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular conditions. Strictly speaking, you have resistant hypertension if your blood pressure is still high even though you are taking three or more pressure-lowering medications, or if you need to take four or more medications to reach your blood pressure target. More »

Using smartphone apps for heart health

A cell phone or smartphone can do so much more than make calls, send text messages, and play games. Hundreds of heart-related applications are available for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and other smartphones. Many are little more than glorified diaries or pamphlets. A growing number, though, are tapping into the sophisticated technology packed into these phones. Here are a few examples of useful heart-related apps and devices. (Locked) More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Mitral Valve Prolapse

Have you had an echocardiogram? What did it show? Does your mitral valve leak? Do you get chest pain? What brings it on? How long does it last? What relieves it? Do you ever get a rapid or pounding heartbeat (palpitations) for no reason? How long does it last? Do you feel faint or develop chest pain or shortness of breath? Have you ever fainted? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Have you ever taken any medications for your heart? Did you develop any side effects from these medications? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Heart (sometimes while you are standing, squatting, or performing other maneuvers) Lungs Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Holter monitor or event monitor   More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Peripheral Artery Disease

Do you develop pain, cramps, aches, fatigue, or numbness in your leg muscles when you walk? At what distance do you develop symptoms? Do they go away when you stop walking? Do you ever develop these symptoms at rest? Do you have decreased sensation in your feet? If you are a man, do you have erectile dysfunction? Are you doing everything possible to modify the risk factors that can worsen this disease (smoking cessation, treating elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, and controlling diabetes)? Are you exercising regularly and at progressively more strenuous levels? Are you taking an aspirin every day? If you have diabetes, do you practice meticulous foot care (cleaning, applying moisturizing lotions, and wearing well-fitting protective shoes)? Do you know when to seek emergency medical care for peripheral artery disease (if your leg becomes suddenly painful, pale, cold and numb)? Do you get chest pain or pressure with exertion or at rest? If so, you may have coronary artery disease. Do you have sudden brief episodes of blindness (like a shade being pulled over your eyes) or sudden episodes of weakness in an arm or leg, or difficulty speaking? These could be warning symptoms of stroke. Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Pulses in your feet and groin, and behind your knees Listen with the stethoscope over your carotid arteries in your neck Heart and lungs Neurologic exam (reflexes and sensation in your legs) Muscles (looking for atrophy in leg muscles) Skin, looking for changes related to reduced circulation Blood tests, including glucose and cholesterol levels Ultrasound of your carotid arteries Doppler Ankle-Arm Indices Exercise Stress Test MRI/MRA Angiography   More »

“Mini-strokes” have major risks

What's the difference between a stroke and a transient ischemic attack (TIA)? At first, not much. They look the same, feel the same, and stem from the same thing — blocked blood flow to the brain. But a stroke lasts for hours, maybe longer, while a TIA fades away after a few minutes. Don't be fooled by the disappearance of symptoms. Even after they are gone, danger still lurks in the form of other TIAs, stroke, and even death. A study published in the April 2005 Stroke looked at all the people who had a TIA in the Cincinnati area during a single year. In the three months following the mini-stroke, 1 in 7 people (14.6%) had a full stroke, and 1 in 4 (25.2%) had either died or suffered a stroke or another TIA. More »

Aspirin for heart attack: Chew or swallow?

You've always been healthy, but you seemed to run out of steam at your wife's 60th birthday dinner last week. And now your chest feels heavy, as if you're in a vise. You take some antacids, even though it's 7:00 a.m. and you haven't even had breakfast. But you get no relief, and the pain is spreading to your jaw and shoulder. You call your wife, who takes one look at you and rushes to the phone. After calling 911, she brings you an aspirin and some water. Your wife got it right: You may be having a heart attack, and you need to get to the hospital fast. You also need to get some aspirin into your system quickly — but should you chew the tablet or swallow it? More »

Making sense of cholesterol tests

Time to get your cholesterol checked. Okay, but which test should you get? It's not so simple anymore. Here is a rundown of some of the choices and their pros and cons: Total cholesterol. This is the simplest and least expensive test, and fasting isn't necessary. The test doesn't require any sophisticated lab work, either. The simple, do-it-yourself home cholesterol tests measure total cholesterol. If you otherwise have a low heart risk, a reading of 200 or below puts you in the desirable category; 200–239 is borderline high; and 240 or more is high. But total cholesterol includes both "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and the "bad" varieties, chiefly low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). So if your total cholesterol is in the desirable category, it's possible that you may have unhealthy levels of HDL (too low) and LDL and VLDL (too high). Think of total cholesterol as a first glimpse, a peek. Doctors are not supposed to make any treatment decisions based on this number alone. More »

Alternatives to Vioxx if Heart Disease Present — TheFamily HealthGuide

Although the sudden decision to withdraw Vioxx came as a surprise, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Concerns about the cardiovascular safety of this medication were raised soon after it was approved for sale in the United States . As of this early October 2004 article, hard and fast guidelines for replacing Vioxx haven't yet been published. What many doctors are telling their patients with heart disease is to first try one of the older, more established anti-inflammatory drugs. Many people turned to the new drugs, called COX-2 inhibitors, because they thought they were superior for relieving pain or easing inflammation. In reality, Vioxx, Celebrex, or Bextra aren't any better at this than older and much less expensive nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, others). Like the older drugs, the COX-2 inhibitors can also irritate the stomach. Their main advantage is that they aren't as likely to cause bleeding ulcers. Keep in mind, though, that this "advantage" is small and far from complete - about 1%-2% of people who use an older NSAID develop serious stomach bleeding, compared to 0.5%-1% of those using a COX-2 inhibitor. More »