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

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 »

Clearing clogged arteries in the neck

A blockage in one of the carotid arteries can be cleared either by endarterectomy or carotid angioplasty. The latter is less invasive, but some research is showing that this method may have a higher risk of complications. More important than which procedure you choose is the experience of the doctor who will perform it and how well his or her patients fare afterward. Don't be shy about asking for numbers: How many carotid artery procedures do you perform each year? What percentage of your patients have a stroke or die from the procedure? These are tough questions to ask, but they are the most important ones in your decision-making process. More »

Chest pain: A heart attack or something else?

Chest pain is an indicator of a possible heart attack, but it may also be a symptom of another condition or problem. Chest pain isn't something to shrug off until tomorrow. It also isn't something to diagnose at home. If you are worried about pain or discomfort in your chest, upper back, left arm, or jaw; or suddenly faint or develop a cold sweat, nausea, or vomiting, call 911 or your local emergency number to summon an emergency medical crew. It will whisk you to the hospital in a vehicle full of equipment that can start the diagnosis and keep you stable if your heart really is in trouble. More »

Exercise stress test

An exercise stress test is a good — but not great — indicator of the health of the heart and coronary arteries. It works quite well for people who are likely to have cholesterol-clogged arteries and who can exercise long enough to reach their maximum heart rate. The test isn't as good for people at low risk of heart disease, or those who are too frail or out of shape to exercise long enough. More »

Testosterone and the heart

Testosterone has been linked to cardiac risk factors like peripheral artery disease (PAD). The most serious long-term complications of testosterone therapy include an increased risk of prostate diseases, both BPH and possibly prostate cancer. But researchers are beginning to examine the possibility that testosterone therapy might be beneficial for men with heart disease. Do the benefits outway the risks? More »