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

A closer look at heart disease risk

Sometimes the presence of atherosclerosis, the disease underlying most heart attacks, is not clear or easily recognized, especially before a heart attack or other crisis happens. In those instances, doctors may rely on a coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan, which measures the amount of calcium in the heart’s arteries, high levels of which are associated with cardiovascular disease. The CAC results can help predict a person’s risk for heart attack or stroke, even if that person doesn’t have obvious risk factors or symptoms. (Locked) More »

Beyond the morning buzz: How does coffee affect your heart?

People who drink about three cups of coffee a day are slightly less likely to develop heart disease or to die from it than people who don’t drink coffee. In sensitive people, the caffeine in coffee may trigger a pounding, irregular heartbeat. Drinking unfiltered (French press or Turkish) coffee may slightly raise cholesterol levels. But in general, even for people with heart disease, modest coffee consumption appears to be safe. However, people should not rely on coffee to spend less time sleeping, because sleep deprivation is very hard on the heart. (Locked) More »

Mental stress, gender, and the heart

In people with heart disease, mental stress can lead to reduced blood supply to the heart, a phenomenon known as mental stress–induced ischemia. This problem seems to result from different physiological effects in women and men. More »

Stepping up treatments for PAD

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) happens when fatty deposits clog the arteries that supply blood to the legs. The hallmark symptom—leg cramping and pain—is called claudication (from the Latin word claudicatio, meaning “to limp”). People with PAD are also likely to have similar clogging (atherosclerosis) in their coronary arteries. One of the best therapies for PAD, called supervised exercise training, is now covered by Medicare. The therapy involves meeting with a trained exercise therapist to walk on a treadmill several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes over a 12-week period. More »

The many ways exercise helps your heart

Over the long term, exercise protects the heart in a number of ways, such as encouraging the heart’s arteries to dilate more readily and helping the sympathetic nervous system (which controls the heart rate and blood pressure) to be less reactive. But a single bout of exercise may protect the heart right away through a process called ischemic preconditioning. This phenomenon, which involves molecular and metabolic changes that help the heart adapt to inadequate blood flow, seems to protect the heart if a heart attack does occur, reducing damage by as much as 50%. (Locked) More »

Valve replacement: Mechanical or tissue?

For an aortic valve replacement, experts usually recommend mechanical valves for people under age 50 and tissue valves for those over age 70. For people between those two ages, neither type has a clear advantage over the other. (Locked) More »

Vegetable of the month: Artichokes

Artichokes contain cynarin, a biologically active chemical that seems to increase the liver's production of bile, which helps remove cholesterol from the body. (Locked) More »