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

Potassium lowers blood pressure

When it comes to fighting high blood pressure, the average American diet delivers too much sodium and too little potassium. Eating to reverse this imbalance could prevent or control high blood pressure and translate into fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease. Normal body levels of potassium are important for muscle function. Potassium relaxes the walls of the blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and protecting against muscle cramping. A number of studies have shown an association between low potassium intake and increased blood pressure and higher risk of stroke. On the flip side, people who already have high blood pressure can significantly lower their systolic (top number) blood pressure by increasing their potassium intake when they choose to eat healthy foods. Most Americans get barely half of the recommended amount of potassium — 4,700 milligrams (mg) a day. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and some seeds offer good ways to get more of it. Bananas (about 425 mg of potassium in a medium-sized one) are often held up as the poster child for potassium, but there are better sources. More »

LDL cholesterol: Low, lower, and lower still

The overall message on "bad" LDL cholesterol is much the same as it has been: Lower is better and how low your level should be depends on your cardiovascular risk factors. But the standard for what low LDL means keeps on getting lower. While  an LDL level under 70 is still the usual goal for people at the highest risk for cardiovascular disease perhaps that is still too high. The main impetus for the "lower is better" mantra got started more than 10 years ago based on studies of the statin drugs such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor). The studies involved only people with heart disease, so the lessons learned don't directly apply to everyone, but there are certainly enough people with heart disease to make them important. More »

Stress tests for the heart: What happens after exercise just as importantas what happens during—The FamilyHealth Guide

An exercise stress test measures how the heart responds to and copes with increasing amounts of activity. It can warn of impending heart trouble or monitor the aftermath of a heart attack. Research suggests that checking not only how the heart does during exercise, but also how the heart recovers from it adds an extra dimension to the test. During a cool-down period, the heart should slow toward its normal rate with a steady pattern of regular, healthy electrical activity. But sometimes the heart may take too long to slow down or may beat irregularly — signs of possible trouble ahead. An exercise stress test gauges how exercise affects blood pressure, the heart rate, and its electrical activity. More »