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

Tracing the heart’s electrical signature

An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a quick, painless, noninvasive test that can help diagnose dozens of heart conditions. For people who are 50 or older, getting an ECG as part of an annual physical exam makes sense, according to some cardiologists. The test records the heart’s electrical activity through 10 small electrodes placed on the chest, arms, and legs. The resulting squiggly lines represent the electrical impulses in the heart that activate the heart muscle and its blood-pumping action. An ECG may reveal damage from a previously undetected heart attack, abnormalities in heart rhythm, or an enlarged heart. (Locked) More »

5 overlooked symptoms that may signal heart trouble

Pain in the chest sometimes is a symptom of heart disease. But heart problems aren’t always obvious. Fatigue, unexplained aches and pains, shortness of breath, swollen feet or ankles, and heart palpitations may also indicate heart trouble. Consult a doctor about symptoms that start with activity and are relieved with rest; if several of these symptoms occur at one time; or if they occur in someone with heart disease or factors that raise the risk for it (like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or smoking). (Locked) More »

Concerns about swollen legs

One common cause of swollen legs is venous insufficiency, which results from faulty valves in the deep veins of the legs. Less common but more serious causes include heart failure and (when in only one leg) deep-vein thrombosis. (Locked) More »

Deterring heart disease if you have diabetes

Three newer medications for type 2 diabetes, empagliflozin (Jardiance), canagliflozin (Invokana) and liraglutide (Victoza), appear to lower the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease in addition to lowering blood sugar. Empagliflozin and canagliflozin, which improve diabetes by helping the body release more sugar into the urine, seem to be especially helpful for decreasing heart failure cases. Liraglutide lowers blood sugar by preventing the liver from making too much sugar and helping the pancreas produce more insulin. It reduced serious heart events by 13% and deaths from heart disease by 22%. People with type 2 diabetes and heart disease who are having trouble reaching their HbA1c targets may want to discuss these new medications with their doctors. (Locked) More »

Grape expectations: Is red wine good for your heart?

Despite popular belief, there is no good evidence that red wine in particular (or alcohol in general) is beneficial for the heart. The arguments for red wine’s alleged benefits include the “French paradox” and the discovery of beneficial compounds called polyphenols in grape skins. But observational studies comparing red wine to other types of alcohol have had mixed results. Moderate drinking (one drink daily for healthy women, two for men) is widely considered safe, but heavy drinking is closely linked to a higher risk of accidents, cancer, heart disease, and liver problems. (Locked) More »

Mindfulness can improve heart health

The mind-calming effect of meditation can help reduce the risk of heart disease, according to research. A regular practice can lower heart rate, improve blood flow, and reduce and manage stress. It also can help create a positive outlook on life and encourage a person to follow many heart-healthy habits like a proper diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. (Locked) More »

Tai chi: A kinder, gentler approach to cardiac rehab?

Tai chi is a gentle exercise that involves a series of flowing movements and breath awareness. It may be a good alternative for people who decline to participate in cardiac rehabilitation, particularly if they think the exercise aspect of rehab will be too tiring or difficult. Tai chi is less physically demanding than many other forms of exercise and may also help lower stress. Regular practice may also modestly lower blood pressure and benefit people with heart failure, who tend to be tired and weak as a result of the heart’s diminished pumping ability. More »

The new blood pressure guidelines: Messages you may have missed

The recently updated blood pressure guidelines lowered the threshold for diagnosing the condition, down to 130/80 mg Hg from 140/90 mm Hg. Nearly half of all Americans now have high blood pressure. People with elevated blood pressure (readings that fall between 120/80 and 130/80 mm Hg) should focus on diet and exercise changes to help lower their values. Those with a reading of 130/80 and higher may also need medications if they have a high risk of heart disease. (Locked) More »

To eat less salt, enjoy the spice of life

People who like spicy foods appear to eat less salt and have lower blood pressure than people who prefer less-spicy foods. Adding even small amounts of spice to food may help people eat less salt, which may benefit their health. More »