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There's more to heart disease, of course, than heart attacks. More and more Americans are developing a condition called congestive heart failure, in which the cardiac muscle becomes weakened and can no longer pump blood efficiently. Investigators are currently studying a group of specialized hormones that are released whenever the heart muscle falters. Some of these hormones help restore the heart's vigor while others, paradoxically, make the muscle stiffer and more difficult to contract. The goal is to figure out a way to boost the levels of the beneficial hormones while lowering those that make the weakened heart's job more difficult.
Drugs are bound to play a major role in any new advances based on genetic or tissue engineering as well. For example, doctors hope one day to repair the muscle damage that occurs during heart attacks by transplanting precursor cells called stem cells into the affected areas. However, the stem-cell implants can take hold only if the levels of a number of different enzymes and molecules are boosted--a task that pharmaceuticals are particularly well suited to fill.
Of course, there would be much less need for new medications to treat heart disease if we all exercised more, watched our weight and stopped eating so much food that is high in saturated fat. Public-health experts estimate that you can reduce your risk of heart disease as much as 80% by adopting a healthy lifestyle. But as long as our culture and our genes conspire to clog our arteries and strain our hearts, it's good to know that there will be some powerful drugs to help undo the damage.