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

Take it with a grain of salt

If you are trying to watch your salt intake, pay careful attention to the amount of salt in prepared and processed foods. But not everyone benefits from eating less salt. More »

Why not flaxseed oil?

While flaxseed oil may seem like a good way to get beneficial omega-3 fats, its healthful effects are not as powerful as they appear. Eating fish is still the best way to get omega-3s. More »

Anger: Heartbreaking at any age

Long-term studies show a probable link between anger in young men and increased risk of heart disease in middle age and beyond, but excessive anger at any age is bad for the heart. More »

Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women

We've come a long way since the days when a woman's worry over heart disease centered exclusively on its threat to the men in her life. We now know it's not just a man's problem. Every year, coronary heart disease, the single biggest cause of death in the United States, claims women and men in nearly equal numbers. In a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, about half of the women interviewed knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, yet only 13% said it was their greatest personal health risk. If not heart disease, then what? Other survey data suggest that on a day-to-day basis, women still worry more about getting breast cancer — even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year. Why the disconnect? Breast cancer affects body image, sexuality, and self-esteem in ways that a diagnosis of heart disease does not. Also, heart disease tends to show up at an older age (on average, a woman's first heart attack occurs at age 70), so the threat may not seem all that real to younger women. Most 50-year-old women know women their age who've had breast cancer but none who've had heart disease. More »

Exercise and your arteries

Regular exercise is crucial to keeping the circulatory system functioning optimally, which in turn is beneficial to overall health and protection from heart disease. (Locked) More »

Recognizing stroke early

Early treatment of the most common type of stroke, ischemic stroke, can limit brain damage and vastly improve outcomes. Ischemic stroke is the kind caused by atherosclerosis, which causes blood clots that block the blood supply to a part of the brain. Yet too few ischemic stroke patients receive important clot-busting drugs, which are most effective when given within three hours after symptoms start. Patients often arrive at the hospital after that window of opportunity has closed. They delay getting treatment because stroke symptoms may not be that pronounced or they are mistaken as coming from other, less serious problems. As a result, doctors are looking for ways to make it easier for the layperson to identify a stroke. The Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale is one such attempt. Some experts say it leaves out too many symptoms. Others say it will cause false alarms because it's not specific enough.. Even so, the Cincinnati scale is a beginning. In one study, if any of the three tests that are part of the scale were abnormal, the chances that the person had suffered a stroke were about 70%. More »

Treating depression after a heart attack

Surviving a heart attack is cause for celebration. It's also a trigger for depression. Up to half of heart attack survivors get the blues, and many go on to develop clinical depression. Early experiences with antidepressants weren't that promising because older tricyclic drugs such as clomipramine and nortriptyline sometimes threw off heart rhythms and further endangered the heart. This made doctors leery about recommending antidepressants, even when selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac (fluoxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline), and others came along. However, a small study published in 2002, dubbed SADHART, suggested that Zoloft could safely treat depression after a heart attack and might be good for the heart to boot. And an analysis of a larger trial, called ENRICHD, lends support to the notion that treating post-heart-attack depression with an SSRI may also reduce the chances of having, or dying from, a heart attack. More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - After a Heart Attack

Have you had chest pain or pressure since you were discharged from the hospital? How severe is it? How long does it last? Does it stay in your chest or radiate to other parts of your body? Did you have this pain before your heart attack? What brings it on? How frequently do you get it? What were you doing just prior to the chest pain? Do you ever get chest pain or pressure at rest? What relieves the chest pain? If you take nitroglycerin, how many doses do you usually need to take before the pain goes away? How often do you take nitroglycerin? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Do you awaken in the middle of the night short of breath? Do your ankles swell? Do you ever feel lightheaded? Have you fainted? Do you get rapid or pounding heartbeat for no reason? Do you know what each of the medications you are taking does? Do you know the side effects of each medication? Are you having any side effects? Are you taking an aspirin every day? Are you doing everything you can to modify the risk factors that can worsen your coronary artery disease (cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are the most important risk factors)? Are you participating in a supervised exercise program? Are you resuming your normal activities? Are you sexually active? Have you returned to work? Have you been feeling depressed since your heart attack? Have you been able to reduce the stress in your life? Have you been fatigued? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Pulses in your wrist, groin, and feet Listen over the major arteries in the neck, groin, and feet (for abnormal noises) Look at the veins in the neck to see if there is extra fluid in your body Heart and lungs Ankles and legs (for swelling) Blood tests for glucose, lipid panel (cholesterol levels) and C-reactive protein (CRP) Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Exercise stress test   More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Heart Block

Have you been dizzy or lightheaded? Have you fainted? Have you been fatigued? Have you had chest pain? Do you get it with exertion or at rest? How frequently do you get it? How long does it last? What brings it on? What relieves it? Is this a change from your usual pattern? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Do you awaken in the middle of the night short of breath? Do your ankles swell? Do you get rapid or pounding heartbeats for no reason? What medications are you taking (including over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and vitamins)? Do you have any other medical problems? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Pulses in the wrist and feet Veins in the neck Heart and lungs Ankles and legs (for swelling) Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Holter monitor Electrophysiologic testing   More »