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Glossary of Terms

ace inhibitor  A drug that makes the heart’s work easier by blocking chemicals that constrict capillaries.

aerobic  Means “In the presence of oxygen”. Aerobic exercise causes your heart to beat harder and faster, carrying more oxygen to your heart-at-work muscles.

allopathy  Conventional medicine practiced by physicians who graduate from medical school and write “MD” after their names.

alveoli  The tiny sacs deep within the lungs where the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange takes place.

anaerobic  without oxygen.

anemia  A medical condition in which the body lacks sufficient hemoglobin, resulting in reduced oxygen to body tissues.

angina pectoris  Pain in the heart from insufficient oxygen (blood flow) to the heart muscle. The most common cause of angina is arteriosclerosis. Coronary spasm is another cause. A variant angina that is caused by coronary spasm is known as Prinzmetal’s angina. This is a less common type of angina that occurs at rest, without emotional or physical stress, and often at night.

angiography  A test in which dye is injected into an artery to make the actions of the heart and circulatory system visible using moving x-rays.

angioplasty  A procedure in which a balloon-tipped catheter is inserted through a vein and into the blocked portion of a coronary artery to enlarge the narrowing. Also called percutaneous transluninal coronary angioplasty (PTCA)

anticoagulant  A drug that prevents clots from forming.

atherosclerosis  The condition in which plaque builds up within the arteries, resulting in narrowed, less pliable arteries. Also called “hardening of the arteries”.

aorta  A large artery through which blood leaves the heart to go to the rest of the body.

“apple” body shape  Extra body weight carried around the waist, a pattern that correlates with a higher risk of heart disease than a “pear” body shape.

arrhythmias  Electrical irregularities in the heart.

artery  a blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to a part of the body

artificial heart  A mechanical device to assist a failing heart until a transplant organ can be located.

atria  The upper two chambers of the heart.

auscultation  Listening to the heart and lungs using a stethoscope.

beta blocker  A drug that reduces the rate and force of the heart's pumping action to reduce its oxygen needs.

bio feedback  The process of consciously affecting involuntary body activities, like brain waves and heart rate.

blood pressure  The highest and lowest pressures within the arteries that occur during the cardiac cycle. Measured in millimeters of mercury.

body mass index (BMI)  An algorithym formula used by health professionals to evaluate a person's weight and associated risk disease, especially heart disease.

bradycardia  A heart rate that is slower than normal.

brain death  The absence of electrical activity in the brain, as measured by an electroencephalograph.

calcium channel blocker  A drug that slows the movement of calcium across the membranes of heart muscle cells to slow their contraction.

cardiac catheterization  A diagnostic procedure during which a small tube, or catheter, is threaded into the arteries around the heart.

cardiac rehabilitation programs  Sometimes called heart rehab. Helps you integrate necessary diet and exercise changes into your lifestyle.

cardiologist  A physician who specializes in heart problems.

cardiomyopathy  An enlarged heart that no longer pumps effectively. Some ccardiomyopathies have known causes, such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Many occur for no known reason, and are called idiopathic.

cardiovascular  Of the heart and blood vessels

cardiovascular disease (CVD)  Any of several disease involving the heart and blood vessels, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, rheumatic heart disease, and other heart and blood vessel problems.

cardioversion  A mild shock delivered to the heart through the chest wall (given in a hospital under light sedation) to redirect the heart to a normal rhythm

carotid artery  the artery felt in the neck below the jawbone. Often used for taking the pulse during exercise.

chelation therapy  The technique of introducing a substance into the circulatory system to remove minerals from the body. Often used to treat poisoning by heavy metals like iron, lead and arsenic. Used experimentally to attempt to reduce arterial plaque.

cholesterol  A chemical called a lipid that the body uses to make cell membranes and some hormones. HDL cholesterol, or high density lipoprotein, is “good” cholesterol; LDL cholesterol, or low density lipoprotein, is “bad” cholesterol.

cloning  The scientific process of producing an exact duplicate of a gene, cell or organism

congenital heart disease  A heart problem present from birth.

coronary  Also called a heart attack or myocardial infarction. It refers to the occlusion of a coronary artery from a blood clot or atherosclerotic debris. This results in death of part of the heart muscle. During the healing process, scar tissue forms in the area of damage. Recent medical advances can reduce muscle damage if treatment is instituted immediately.

coronary arteries  The first branches off the ascending aorta, which feed fresh blood to the muscle of the heart.

coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)  Surgical reconstruction of the arteries supplying the heart.

CT scan  Computerized tomography, a sophisticated diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a computer and x-rays to present cross-section “slices” of areas of the body.

diastole  Means “to dilate” or “to expand”. the time during which the heart's chambers relax and fill with blood. The lower number in a blood-pressure reading.

digitalis  A drug that regulates the rate and strength of the heartbeat (digoxin, digitoxin)

diuretic  A drug that reduces blood volume by increasing the amount of water the kidneys excrete as they filter the blood. Sometimes called “water pills”

echocardiography  Ultrasound examination of the heart.

edema  Swelling caused by excessive fluid in the body

electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG)  A test that produces tracings of the heart's electrical activity. The process of performing an ECG is called electrocardiography, which means “electric heart writing”

electrolytes  Chemicals including sodium, potassium, chlorides, bicarbonates, calcium, and magnesium which exist in a dissolved function properly and for a person to feel well, electrolytes must be properly balanced.

endocardium  The membrane that lines the inside of the heart. An inflammation of this membrane, called subacute bacterial endocarditis, can weaken the aortic valve and prompt the need for surgery to replace it.

endorphins  Natural substances, chemically similar to morphine, that the brain releases to relieve pain.

erythrocytes  Red blood cells

evolution  The process by which plant and animal species change in response to changes in their environments.

expiration  The process by which the lungs expel air; also called exhalation.

extrovent  A person who processes information externally or outwardly, by talking about it with others.

familial hyperlipdemia  High cholesterol and triglyceride levels that are genetic or run in the family.

fasting  Refraining from food (and sometimes drink). Certain tests or procedures may require 12 to 14 hours of fasting before they can be accurately performed.

fibrillation  Erratic electrical activity of the heart. Atrial fibrillation, or erratic electrical activity of the upper chambers, causes irregular contraction of the lower chamber and palpitations, characterized by the feeling of galloping horses. Although palpitations can be disconcerting, atrial fibrillation is generally not a serious condition. Ventricular fibrillation, contrastly, results in inefficient pumping of the lower chamber and can cause death if it is not treated immediately.

food pyramid  A chart, drawn in the shape of a pyramid, summarizing the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) daily nutritional recommendations.

gene therapy  A sophisticated medical procedure that treats a disease by altering the genetic structiure of diseased cells.

genetic heart disease  Heart problems related to family history that usually show up in adulthood

genogram  A schematic representation (drawing) of a family's medical history

heart-lung machine  The mechanical device that exchanges carbon dioxide for oxygen in the blood and pumps reoxygenated blood through the body while the heart is stopped during surgery

heart transplant  A medical procedure in which a diseased heart is surgically removed and replaced with a heart from a human donor.

hemoglobin  A substance contained in red blood cells that binds with oxygen molecules.

Holter monitor  An ambulatory ECG that can record the heart's activity for 24 hours or longer. Especially helpful for diagnosing transient symptoms (those that come and go without any predictability), such as rhythm problems, atrial fibrillation, and angina.

homeostasis  The process by which the body adjusts its functions to compensate for deficiencies

homocysteine  A toxic waste product produced during cellular metabolism. This amino acid that is believed to damage cells that line arteries. A high blood homocysteine level correlates with early, serious heart disease. (High Intake of 2 B vitamins – B-6 and Folate– may lower risk by lowering homocysteine levels. The study was based on taking 400 micrograms folate and 3 mg. of B-6 daily.)

hydrogenation  A process that adds consistency to a product that would otherwise be fairly liquid, such as solid cooking oils and stick margarines. Hydrogenation produces trans-fatty acids (sometimes called trans-fats).

hypertension  The medical term for high blood pressure

hypotension  the medical term for low blood pressure.

ICD  Implantable cardioverter defibrillator. An electronic device implanted into the body that can send brief, regular impulses to the heart to thwart fibrillation, deliver a mild shock to redirect the heart to a normal rhythm (called cardioversion), or give a stiff shock to jolt the heart out of a dangerous fibrillation.

imaging procedures  High-tech procedures that let doctors observe various aspects of the heart at work without opening the chest. Includes echocardiography, angiography, CT CT scan (computerized tomography), MRI, CT scan.

immunosuppressive drugs  Drugs that fool the immune system into accepting a transplanted organ, such as a heart, as if it were native to the host body to prevent rejection.

inspiration  The process by which the lungs take in air; also called inhalation.

introvert  Apersonn who processes information internally or inwardly, by thinking about it and mulling it over.

intubate  To insert a tube between the vocal cords and into the windpipe.

ischemia  Without enough blood (oxygen). Can be myocardial (heart) or brain (transishemic attacks or mini-strokes)

leukocytes  White blood cells

left main coronary artery  The source of fresh blood to the entire left side of the heart. Blockage of this artery is adiree threat to life.

mammary arteries  The two arteries running alongside the breast plate (sternum). These internal thoracic arteries, as they are also called, feed the chest wall. They are expendable, however, and are often used for bypass grafts. Themammaryy artery takes longer, to prepare for use as a graft, but it is likely to remain unclogged for a greater number of years than the saphenous vein, the other vessel commonly used for bypass.

maximum heart rate  the fastest and hardest your heart can pump without going into fibrillation. Rate differs according to age.

mitral valve  The valve that separates the two chambers on the left side of the heart. This two-part valve derives its name from a bishop's headpiece (called a miter), which it resembles. The valve, sometimes also called a parachute valve because it is attached to a supporting ring by two long shrouds, permits blood to fall from the left atrium into theventriclee when the atrium contracts. When the atrium relaxes, the valve closes to prevent the blood from backing up into the atrium and from there, into the lungs. Next to the aortic valve, this is the heart's second most important valve.

meditation  A means of focusing the mind to reduce or eliminate conscious thought, to bring the mind to stillness or rest

metaphysics  A school of philosophical thought that examines the basic nature of reality and existence. The word means “after the physical”

MRI  Magnetic resonance imaging, anon-invasivee,sophisticatedd imaging technology using a very strong magnetic field to create images of internal organs.

myocardial infarction  “to block around the heart.” Identifies heart tissue that dies because it has been too long without oxygen.

myocardium  A strong, special kind of muscle tissue, not found anywhere else in the body, that makes the heart.

myxoma  The most common of heart tumors.Piecess of spongy growth can break off and travel with the blood stream to the brain, where it may cause ministrokes. Or it can clog the mitral valve preventing efficient passage of oxygenated blood into the left ventricle and from there, out into the body. Thistumorr is rarely cancerous, and surgical removal cures the condition permanently.

natural selection  The process by which stronger individuals within a species survive and pass their genes to future generations. Weaker individuals are unable to survive and don't reproduce, eliminating their genes from future generations.

naturapathy  A form of alternative medicine that uses substances found naturally in the environment for healing and to maintain health. Also called naturapathic medicine.

neuropeptides  Strings of amino acids that carry molecular messages from the brain to the cells.

nicotine  An addictive chemical substance found in tobacco.

non-invasive  Without entering the body

nutritionist  Someone who has completed a program of study in nutrition or food science. Those who meet the educational and clinical requirements and pass a national test are also registered dietitians, which they designate by placing the initials “RD” after their names.

nitroglycerin  A drug commonly used to treat angina. It is administered by tablet, which is placed under the tongue; long-acting capsule, which is swallowed;transdermalm patch, worn like a Band-aid on the skin. In an emergency it can be given intravenously. Nitroglycerin dilates the arteries temporarily, thus improving blood flow to the heart and relieving chest pain.

nuclear scan  A variety of Xray studies incorporating radioisotopes that are injected into the bloodstream, to reveal the functioning of the heart. These tests can accurately measure the efficiency of the heart pump and show areas where the muscle has been injured. While nuclear scans often fit into a thoroughdiagnosticc workup, they cannot take the place of cardiac catheterizationn because only catheterizationn can reveal blockages in the coronary arteries.

olestra  A fat-based product with molecules that are too big for the body to digest in the time it takes a product that contains olestra to pass through the digestive system. Used as a fat substitute in snack foods.

omega-3 fatty acids  Special polyunsaturated fats found in fish that keep triglycerides from forming.

organ donor  A person who gives his or her organs for transplant after death.

organ recipient  A person who receives an organ for transplant

organ rejection  The process by which the immune system perceives a transplanted organ as harmful and attacks it.

oxygenation  The process of infusing blood with oxygen, which takes place in the lungs, or during heart surgery, in the oxygenator of the heart-lung machine

pacemaker  An implantable electronic device that regulates the heartbeat.

“pear” body shape  Extra body weight carried through the hips, buttocks, and thighs. Correlates to less of a risk for heart disease than “apple” body shape.

pericardium  The tough sac of fibrous tissue that surround the heart and anchors it within the chest

plaque  The fatty material that builds up on the insides of artery walls.

plasma  the straw-colored fluid component of blood that transports other blood cells and keeps the blood vessels from collapsing.

platelets  Blood cells that contain fibrin (a clotting substance) for repairing wounds.

pleurisy  An inflammation of the membrane which lines the chest cavity accompanied by fluid exuded into the cavity. The condition can occur as a mild complication of heart surgery and is characterized by pain in the side, a chill, fever, anddryy cough. If theconditionn worsens, pain lessens, but as fluids build up, breathing becomes difficult and the fluid may need to be drained.&sup4;

polyunsaturated fats  Unsaturated fats with many solo (unattached) carbon atoms.

postcardiotomy syndrome  A common complication that can set in during the first weeks after surgery. It is characterized by fever and other flu-like symptoms. Chest pain and depression may also occur.

post-pump syndrome  Temporary mental difficulties (e.g. with thinking, remembering, reading, and concentrating) that can occur after heart surgery. These problems appear to be somehow relatedd to the heart-lung machine and ordinarily disappear within a year after surgery.

precipitating event  The activity or circumstance that initiates a heart attack, such as sudden physical exertion (like shoveling snow).

primary care physician  An internist (a specialist in adult care) or a family doctor who administers general care.

pulmonary artery  The larger artery through which the heart sends blood to the lungs to be oxygenated.

radial artery  The artery felt on the inside of the wrist at the base of the thumb. This location is often used for taking the pulse.

radionuclides  Radioactive substances injected into the body that release particles of energy. Sophisticated scanning technologies track these particles as they enter various body tissues.

registered dietitian  A nutritionist who meets the educational and clinical requirements and passes a national test. Designated with the initials “RD” after the person’s name.

resting pulse rate  How fast and hard the heart beats at rest. Between 70 and 100 for most adults

saphaneous vein  A large, superficial, nonessential vein in the leg that is often used for coronary artery grafts in bypass surgery. There are two saphenous veins in each leg. One runs from the thigh to the foot and the other from the knee to the foot.

saturated fats  Fats that are usually solid at room temperature, such as butter, lard, and animal fat.

sedentary  A lifestyle with very little physical activity.

sinoatrial node  The pea-sized cluster of special-duty cells at the right atrium that generates the tiny jolts of electricity that ripple through the heart muscle to initiate each cardiac cycle

sphygmomanometer  A device for measuring blood pressure, commonly called a blood pressure cuff. Includes an inflatable cuff that wraps around the upper arm, a bulb attached to a tube to pump the cuff full of air, and gauge that shows the level of pressure within the arteries as the heart beats.

splinting  Supporting the chest by hugging a stiff pillow in order to minimize the pain caused by coughing, sneezing, and other actions that put strain on the incision.

stenosis  A narrowing of stiffening. Mitral valve stenosis refers to scarring or calcification, which prevents the valve from opening fully and permitting blood to pass through itefficientlyy. Coronary stenosis refers to atherosclerosis or narrowing caused by a clot, either of which can prevent or slow blood flow.

stent  A tiny, spring-like device that keeps an artery’s walls from closing again after a coronary bypass graft or balloon angioplasty

stethoscope  A simple instrument for listening to the heart and lungs

stress test  Assessment of the capability of the heart to withstand exercisee. The patient confronts increasingly challenging exercise on the treadmill or stationary bicycle while an electrocardiogram traces the electrical activity of the heart and blood pressure is monitored. Sometimes a nuclear scan is coordinated with this study.

stroke  Loss of oxygen to the brain caused by a blood clot (ischemic) or bleeding (hemorrhagic)

systole  Means “to contract.” The time during which the heart muscle contracts to pump blood out. The higher number is a blood pressure reading.

tachycardia  A heart rate that is faster than normal

tai chi  An ancient form of martial arts that emphasizes breathing techniques and structured, slow movements. Also incorporates meditation

target heart rate  The pulse needed to give the heart a good workout...estimated between 50 and 75 percent of the maximum heart rate.

thrombolytics  Drugs that rapidly dissolve blood clots, “unplugging” blocked arteries to restore blood flow. Sometimes called clot busters

transducer  An electronic device, hand-held for most ultrasound procedures, that sends out and receives very high-pitched sound waves (too high for the human ear to detect) for diagnostic imaging.

transischemic attack (TIA)  “Mini-strokes” that occur when a small blood clot blocks an artery leading to the brain for a short time. Symptoms are the same as for a stroke but go away in a few minutes. TIAs often warn that a full-fledged stroke is on the way

tricuspid valve  The valve that separates the two chambers of the heart. As the name implies, it has three parts and is a parachute valve, like the mitral valve. When the left atrium contracts, this valve opens and permits blood to fall from the atrium into the ventricle.

triglyceride  A form of fat closely related to cholesterol

“untrafast” CT scan  Electron beam computed tomography (EBCT), a sophisticated imaging technology that uses very fast-moving particles to generate clear images of moving organs, such as the heart.

ultrasound  A diagnostic imaging procedure using very high-pitched sound waves to produce pictures of internal organs. Also called sonography.

unsaturated fats  Fats that are usually liquid at room temperature, sometimes called oils.

vascular  having to do with the blood vessels

vasodilator  A drug that causes the arteries to relax so blood can flow through them more easily

vegetarian  A diet that excludes meat. A meatless diet that includes dairy products and some poultry and fish is called semi vegetarian. A meatless diet that includes milk and eggs, but no fish or poultry, is called lacto-ovovegetarian; one that excludes eggs as well is called lactovegetarian. A vegan diet is the strictest form of vegetarian diet and excludes all animal products, including eggs and dairy

vein  A vessel that carries blood from other parts of the body to the heart

vena cava  Larger veins that carry blood into the heart. The superior vena cava brings blood from the upper parts of the body. The inferior vena cava brings blood from the lower parts of the body.

ventricle  The lower, pumping chambers of the heart

vital signs  Blood pressure, pulse, and rate or respiration. Sometimes includes body temperature

yoga  Combines flexibility and breathing techniques to improve physical strength and endurance. Also emphasizes the mind's awareness of the body's activities, connecting body and mind to improve the performance of both.


Cohan, C., Pimm, J., Jude, J. Coping with Heart Surgery and Bypassing Depression, Psychosocial Press ’98
Romain D, Dewitt D, Complete Idiot's Guide to a Happy, Healthy Heart, Alpha Books, ’98

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1999-2000; updates: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 Women's Heart Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited. The information contained in this Women's Heart Foundation (WHF) Web site is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and WHF recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.