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

Afib: Rhythm or rate control

Treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on a person’s symptoms as well as their age and other health conditions. One approach uses medications to slow the heart; another involves controlling the heart’s unstable rhythm. (Locked) More »

Sugar’s not-so-sweet effects on the heart

A sugary diet contributes to weight gain and other factors that boost heart disease risk, including inflammation, disrupted blood sugar control, and increased cholesterol. The typical American diet is very high in added sugar, nearly half of which comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. Another 30% comes from baked goods such as cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries. People don’t need to completely give up sweet treats but should enjoy them just once or twice a week rather than daily. (Locked) More »

Treatments for a stiff, narrow aortic valve

There are a number of treatments for a stiff, narrow aortic valve. They include open heart surgery to replace the defective valve, a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) to replace the valve, or medicine. Doctors say surgery or TAVR are equally good choices. TAVR is less invasive than surgery and appears to work as well as surgery in both the short and long term. Medicines alone, while an attractive option, may be the worst choice. (Locked) More »

What can at-home genetic tests tell you about heart-related risks?

At-home genetic tests such as 23andMe and Ancestry Health are unlikely to help predict a person’s odds of heart disease. The results reveal only limited information about a person’s risk for abnormally high cholesterol (a condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia) or harmful blood clots (known as hereditary thrombophilia). Most cases of coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease, are polygenic, meaning they result from changes in multiple genes. (Locked) More »

Can stronger muscles pump up your heart health?

Just like aerobic exercise, targeted exercises to strengthen muscles throughout your body may also help stave off heart disease. Strength training helps burn calories and may help prevent harmful belly fat accumulation. Muscle tissue is more metabolically active, so it helps control blood sugar and lowers insulin resistance. That helps prevent type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease. Strength training can be done with resistance bands, small hand weights, or weight machines. More »

Heart tests before surgery: When are they necessary?

A preoperative evaluation (sometimes called "clearance" for surgery) helps assess a person’s chances of experiencing a heart-related problem during surgery. These check-ups typically involve a physical exam and may include blood tests, x-rays, and an electrocardiogram (ECG). Some major surgeries, such as a hip replacement, can tax the cardiovascular system, possibly uncovering previously undiagnosed heart disease. Other minor, low-risk procedures, such as cataract removal, put very little strain on the heart and usually don’t require a preoperative ECG. (Locked) More »

How accurate are wearable heart rate monitors?

Smart watches and wrist-worn fitness trackers that estimate a person’s heart rate appear to be reliable in people with a range of different skin tones. But their accuracy may vary during different types of everyday activities. More »

Understanding sudden cardiac arrest

Coronary artery disease is the underlying cause of most cases of sudden cardiac arrest, which means the heart abruptly and unexpectedly stops beating. Most heart attacks do not lead to cardiac arrest. But sometimes, the heart’s ventricles quiver rapidly and irregularly during a heart attack, and this lethal rhythm causes most sudden cardiac arrests. Heart attack survivors who experienced significant muscle damage are also at risk for cardiac arrest. Other possible causes of cardiac arrest include inherited abnormalities of the heart’s electrical pathways or structural changes in the heart, such as those caused by heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy). (Locked) More »