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

Acetaminophen may boost blood pressure

A small Swiss study found that daily use of acetaminophen can cause an increase in blood pressure, which is of concern to people with cardiovascular disease. When the participants took acetaminophen, average systolic blood pressure increased from 122.4 to 125.3, while the average diastolic pressure increased from 73.2 to 75.4. Blood pressure stayed steady when participants took the placebo. More »

Coping with shortness of breath

One of the most distressing complications of advanced heart failure is the feeling that you can't get enough air. This shortness of breath — dyspnea — has been defined as "a subjective experience of breathing discomfort" and "an uncomfortable sensation or awareness of breathing." People who have chronic shortness of breath describe it as suffocating, smothering, and hungering for air. Chronic shortness of breath affects millions of people. It also commonly accompanies conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, stroke, muscular dystrophy, and others. Researchers have formulated new guidelines to identify and treat this condition in those who suffer from it. (Locked) More »

New drug offers warfarin alternative for atrial fibrillation

A newly approved alternative to warfarin, a drug called dabigatran (sold under the brand name Pradaxa), fights stroke better than warfarin, with less bleeding into the brain, among people with atrial fibrillation. It could also make life a little bit easier for them. Pradaxa is not affected by diet and does not require its dosage to be fine-tuned. For some people, switching right away to Pradaxa makes sense. For others, it is worth adopting a watch-and-wait strategy. Talk with your doctor to see which approach is right for you. (Locked) More »

Protect your heart during dental work

In the past, people taking an antiplatelet medication were usually told to stop taking it temporarily before dental surgery, but doing so may increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke in the weeks following the procedure. Experts we talked to offered advice about how to protect your heart if you need to undergo periodontal treatment or other invasive dental work. (Locked) More »

Understanding the ECG: Reading the waves

The electrocardiogram (ECG) is one of the most common, enduring, and important tests in all of medicine. It's easy to perform, noninvasive, produces results right away, and is useful in diagnosing dozens of heart conditions. The ECG has taken on even more importance lately because a particular ECG pattern, called ST elevation, is a strong indication that a serious heart attack has occurred, and there's more emphasis than ever on treating heart attacks as soon as possible. An ECG isn't necessarily going to be part of a routine physical, but if you need medical attention because you have chest pain, sudden unexplained shortness of breath, or other symptoms that suggest a possible heart attack, you will almost certainly get an ECG. (Locked) More »

Ask the doctor: Do I really need surgery to fix my aortic valve?

I have had a leaking aortic valve for many years. I get an echocardiogram every six months. After the latest one, my doctor told me that my heart was enlarging and asked me repeatedly whether I was getting short of breath with exercise. I told him that sure, I get tired, but it isn't like I am breathing hard while sitting still. Now he wants me to have surgery to replace the valve. Should I do this at age 68? (Locked) More »

January 2011 references and further reading

Kvaavik E, Batty GD, Ursin G, Huxley R, Gale CR. Influence of individual and combined health behaviors on total and cause-specific mortality in men and women: the United Kingdom health and lifestyle survey. Archives of Internal Medicine 2010; 170:711-8. Myint PK, Luben RN, Wareham NJ, Bingham SA, Khaw KT. Combined effect of health behaviours and risk of first ever stroke in 20,040 men and women over 11 years' follow-up in Norfolk cohort of European Prospective Investigation of Cancer (EPIC Norfolk). BMJ 2009; 338:b349. Chiuve SE, McCullough ML, Sacks FM, Rimm EB. Healthy lifestyle factors in the primary prevention of coronary heart disease among men: benefits among users and nonusers of lipid-lowering and antihypertensive medications. Circulation 2006; 114:160-7. (Locked) More »