Heart Disease

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 diseases include:

  • coronary artery disease: the accumulation of cholesterol-filled plaque in the arteries that nourish heart muscle
  • heart attack (myocardial infarction): the sudden stopping of blood flow to part of the heart muscle
  • heart failure: the inability of the heart to pump as forcefully or efficiently as needed to supply the body with oxygenated blood
  • heart rhythm disorders: heartbeats that are too fast, too slow, or irregular
  • heart valve disorders: problems with the valves that control blood flow from one part of the heart to another part of the heart or to the body.
  • sudden cardiac arrest: the sudden cessation of the heartbeat
  • cardiomyopathy: a disease of the heart muscle that causes the heart to become abnormally enlarged, thickened, and/or stiffened
  • pericarditis: inflammation of the pericardium, a thin sac that surrounds the heart
  • myocarditis: inflammation of the myocardium, the middle layer of the heart wall
  • congenital heart disease: heart diseases or abnormalities in the heart's structure that occur before birth

Heart Disease Articles

Heart rhythm monitoring with a smartwatch

Some smartphones now feature sensors and apps that detect atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder. But these devices are not yet accurate enough to use for screening purposes. About 30% of the data are uninterpretable or inaccurate, in part because of factors such as movement, lighting, temperature, and skin color. In addition, doctors cannot be fully available to review information generated from these devices. Finally, the health consequences of occasional, brief episodes of atrial fibrillation (which causes a rapid, irregular heartbeat) are unknown. (Locked) More »

Meal delivery plans: Should you give one a try?

For people who don’t have the time, energy or interest to plan, shop, and prepare meals, subscription meal-delivery plans may encourage healthier eating and sometimes weight loss. Some plans feature low-sodium or vegetarian meals, which may benefit people with heart disease. Meal-kit plans deliver pre-portioned, mostly fresh ingredients with detailed preparation instructions, which may help people become more comfortable trying new foods and cooking techniques. Plans geared toward weight loss provide microwavable meals and pre-packaged snacks so people don’t have think about portion size or count calories. (Locked) More »

Muscle aches from statins: Real, but sometimes imagined?

About 10% of people report muscle aches when taking statins. In some cases, other health conditions such as arthritis, obesity, or just aging may be to blame. Doing exercise or yard work can cause muscle aches, which some people mistakenly attribute to statins. Another possible explanation: a phenomenon known as the nocebo effect, in which people experience negative side effects from a drug, placebo, or other treatment based on an expectation of harm. Muscle-related problems associated with statins usually resolve with a lower statin dose or a change to a different statin. (Locked) More »

Should you be taking an omega-3 supplement?

Certain people, including those who don’t eat fish and those who are at high risk for cardiovascular events may benefit from omega-3 supplements. But for the average person it’s better to focus on eating a diet that includes fatty fish. Aim for at least two servings a week. (Locked) More »

The buzz about caffeine and health

For most people, consuming caffeine from coffee, tea, or chocolate poses no serious health risk if taken within safe amounts. Healthy people who have never had a heart attack or currently manage high blood pressure should consume no more than 400 mg per day, which is about the amount in four cups of coffee or 10 cups of black tea. However, people who have had a prior heart attack or have heart disease should keep their dosage to about half that per day. (Locked) More »

Lessons about brain health from a landmark heart study

The Framingham Heart Study—the longest running and best-known study of the causes of heart disease—has also revealed important clues about brain disorders, including stroke, cognitive decline, and dementia. In addition to linking high blood pressure with a higher risk of stroke, the study has confirmed that atrial fibrillation and an enlarged left ventricle contribute to stroke risk. The multigenerational study has also affirmed the importance of exercise and social connections for staving off cognitive decline. (Locked) More »