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

Aspirin and your heart: Many questions, some answers

The benefit of taking a daily aspirin to protect against a heart attack is well established, but this protection comes with some increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Here are some questions and answers to help you decide if taking a daily aspirin is right for you. More »

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome)

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also called broken-heart syndrome, is a weakening of the left ventricle that is usually the result of severe stress. Its symptoms resemble those of a heart attack, and treatment is usually the same as that for heart failure, possibly beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, and diuretics (water pills). More »

Is the heart attack going out of style?

Hospitalization rates for heart attacks are going down, so maybe prevention efforts are paying off. Two studies published in 2010 show that the American heart attack rate is continuing to decline. The first, published in Circulation, was based on Medicare data. The main finding was that hospitalization rates for heart attack dropped by about 23% between 2002 and 2007, which by the authors' calculations might have translated into 100,000 fewer hospitalizations a year for the 45 million Americans enrolled in the Medicare program. The second study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, was based on the hospitalization records of 3 million people ages 30 and older enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan. Again, the overall finding was the decline in hospitalizations for heart attack at a clip — 24% — that was nearly identical to that found in the Medicare study, and for a time period, 1999 to 2008, that was roughly the same. More »

Shining a light on thoracic aortic disease

A thoracic aortic aneurysm can be small and stable, or it can tear or rupture. People with certain genetic conditions, and those who have a relative who has had this condition, are at higher risk and should be tested. If you have a thoracic aortic aneurysm, here are five things that can help you cope with this common but overlooked condition: More »

Strategies for cutting back on salt

The Institute of Medicine's newly released report, Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, focuses on big-picture strategies for reining in America's salt habit. Although the report's recommendations represent an essential step forward, there are many things that individuals, chefs, and organizations can do right now to reduce sodium. Many of these guidelines offer a "stealth health" approach to sodium reduction — ways that sodium can be reduced with no change or minimal change to consumer food experiences or choices. Others suggest ways to rebalance and re-imagine food choices as well as introduce new foods that can easily translate into satisfying meals. More »

When and how to treat a leaky mitral valve

If the mitral valve in the heart becomes damaged it can leak, causing blood to flow backward and overwork the heart. A leaky valve can be surgically replaced, but in some situations repairing the valve is more effective than surgery. The repair operation has a lower rate of death (one to two per 100 operations) than valve replacement (four to six per 100), causes fewer strokes, is more effective at reducing symptoms of mitral regurgitation, has a shorter recovery time, and is associated with fewer postoperative heart rhythm problems. Long-term studies show low rates of reoperation. Repaired valves don't wear out, as biological valves do, nor do they need anticoagulation, as mechanical valves do. But they can fail over time due to progression of the disease that caused the regurgitation in the first place. (Locked) More »