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

Medications for treating hypertension

Doctors once hesitated to prescribe medication until a patient's blood pressure reached 160/100. Anything below that level was deemed "mild hypertension" and not considered dangerous, so many doctors worried that the drugs' potential side effects might outweigh their benefits. These perceptions turned out to be false. Research has firmly established the value of treating stage 1 hypertension (140/90 to 159/99 mm Hg) with drugs, if necessary. For those with diabetes or kidney disease, medications may be necessary at pressures as low as 130/80. And today, blood pressure can be controlled with lower doses of medications, meaning there is less chance of side effects. Doctors can choose from an abundant selection of antihypertensive medications, including many preparations that combine one or more drugs. Many newer antihypertensive drugs have a slightly different chemical structure from older drugs but produce nearly identical effects in the body. Others act in entirely different ways. Doctors can tailor treatment to the individual patient and can often prescribe a drug that controls blood pressure, produces few or no side effects, and, hopefully, protects against complications. In addition, it's often possible to use a single medication to treat both the hypertension and accompanying medical problems, like congestive heart failure. (Locked) More »

Overdoing acetaminophen

Accidental overdoses and potential liver damage have raised concerns about the safety of acetaminophen. As a result, the FDA is considering lowering the recommended safe daily limit. More »

When the lights suddenly go out

Fainting occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked or interrupted. An incident of fainting should be reported to a doctor, because if it was caused by a problem in the heart, it may lead to more serious problems. More »

C-Reactive Protein test to screen for heart disease: Why do we need another test?

The gap between knowing what's good for you and actually doing it can be huge, especially when it comes to something like getting exercise. (Never underestimate the appeal of the sedentary life.) Many of us need a warning-some might say a bit of a kick in the pants-before we'll change our ways and get with a heart-healthy program. For decades, cholesterol testing has served as that warning for many. An elevated level of "bad" LDL cholesterol has been just the warning people needed to change their ways. It has played that role for several reasons. People like tests because the results seem objective. Reliable measurement of cholesterol is easy and relatively inexpensive. It makes sense biologically. LDL cholesterol, a protein-wrapped package containing fat and cholesterol, tends to slip out of the bloodstream and lodge in blood vessel walls, forming the plaque that leads to clots and heart attacks. And it makes sense statistically. The correlation between lowering your LDL and lowering your chances of having a heart attack or developing other forms of heart disease is well documented. Indeed, exercise and dietary changes are good for the heart partly because they lower LDL cholesterol levels. More »

The Healthy Heart: Preventing, detecting, and treating coronary artery disease

Although lifestyle changes are an essential first step in treating coronary artery disease, you may need to take medications to reach your cholesterol and blood pressure goals and otherwise reduce your risk. In fact, most people with heart disease need to take more than one medication. The specific combination of drugs will depend on your particular symptoms and risk factors. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications are described below. For many years, doctors used diuretics — sometimes known as water pills — to treat high blood pressure. Although diuretics remain a mainstay of blood pressure treatment because they are cheap and effective, a flood of other drugs have become available since the 1980s. In addition, a large meta-analysis comparing the various options concluded that the five categories of drugs currently available are equally effective for most people. Work with your doctor to determine the best type of medication for you. It is important to keep in mind, though, that most people with hypertension do not get their blood pressure under control with the starting dose of the first drug chosen. At that point, two philosophies exist about what to try next. Some doctors increase the dosage of the first drug to see if it will bring blood pressure down to target levels. The advantage of this approach is simplicity, as the person being treated takes one pill per day. A second approach is to use low doses of two or more blood pressure drugs that work in different ways. This approach minimizes the likelihood of side effects, but may be harder to follow, as it requires taking two or more pills per day. It may also be more expensive for the person being treated, as he or she may face additional copayments or out-of-pocket expenses for the drugs. A compromise approach is to use combination medicines that include, for example, both an ACE inhibitor and a low-dose diuretic. This is convenient, but many combinations are available only in brand-name forms and are thus more expensive. More »