The heart is one of the most important and hardest working organs of the human body. It is a muscular pump that is the main part of the cardiovascular system and it is roughly the size of a fist. While it has been romanticized by poets, writers, and lovers, the heart has a basic, yet essential, purpose. That purpose is to pump oxygenated blood to the body and deoxygenated blood to the lungs.
A person’s heart beats continuously from its first beat in the womb to the moment of death. During infancy, it beats around 120 times a minute. The number of beats per minute decreases as the person grows from infancy to adolescence. From then on, the heart rate stabilizes to an average of 72 beats per minute.
The four-chambered heart is divided so that there are two sides, a right, and a left. Each side comprises an upper chamber called an atrium, and a lower chamber called a ventricle. A blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body is called an artery, while a vein carries blood from the body back to the heart. Venous blood enters the heart at the right atrium and then flows into the right ventricle from where it is pumped into the lungs by way of the pulmonary artery.
The lungs remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen. The now oxygen-rich blood leaves the lungs and enters the left atrium by way of the pulmonary vein from where it flows into the left ventricle. The left ventricle, in turn, pumps the oxygenated blood out to the body through the aorta, so that it can nourish tissues and organs. The pulmonary artery is the only artery in the body that carries deoxygenated blood, and the pulmonary vein is the only vein that carries oxygenated blood. The following links shed more light on the anatomy of the human heart and how blood flows through it.
Because of its importance, the heart must be kept as healthy as possible. To do this, one must modify some behaviors. Two of the primary changes that must be made is to one's diet and level of activity. A healthy body weight reduces excess strain on the heart. Additionally, it also reduces one’s risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. For a healthy heart, people should exercise for no less than 30 minutes a day. Exercise should be moderately intense and performed as frequently as possible.
Changes to one’s diet include drastically reducing or eliminating certain types of fats. Fats that are bad for the heart and overall health include saturated fats and trans fats. These are found in foods such as red meat, dairy products, deep-fried foods, packaged snacks, and margarine. These elevate blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of coronary artery disease. A heart-healthy diet includes eating foods such as whole grains, and albacore tuna and salmon which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Reducing your amount of sodium intake also helps to reduce blood pressure, healthy adults should not be consuming more than 2,300 mg/day. Eating as much as ten servings a day of vegetables and fruits will also lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.Studies also link high consumption of sugar can increase the risk of heart disease. Women should consume less than 100 calories of added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons) and men should consume less than 150 per day (about 9 teaspoons).
Quitting smoking is also a smart move when it comes to protecting one’s heart. Smoking causes one’s heart rate and blood pressure to increase, which puts an extra strain on the heart. It also reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, as a result, the heart must work harder to get the oxygen that it needs, which also increases the heart rate and blood pressure.
Heart rate and blood pressure increase for approximately one hour after smoking one cigarette, the effect of which can be lasting for chronic smokers and can lead to long-term cardiovascular disease. Chemicals in cigarette smoke are also damaging to the arteries which cause a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of one’s arteries and can eventually lead to a heart attack.
It is very important for everyone to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. This is because the earlier a heart attack is identified and managed, the better the outcome. The following links describe the symptoms of a heart attack. If you suspect that you or anyone around you is having any of these signs and symptoms, call 911 immediately.
After calling 911, and while EMS are on their way, start CPR if you are trained in it. CPR is a basic life support skill that can help save lives in emergency situations.
Unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle can put you at risk of developing heart disease. Check the following links to understand the different types of heart disease and their risk factors.
A person's heart works tirelessly from the time that it forms and throughout life. In return, it is important that people take care of this vital organ. Adopting healthy routines such as changes to diet and regular exercise is absolutely necessary. If a person recognizes signs of heart disease such as fatigue, chest pain, or swelling of the extremities, he or she should consult a physician as quickly as possible.
See also our guide to hypertension for addressing this specific heart issue.