The heart: an overview
Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-threesixty-eighta very normal resting pulse for an adult. For some people, the heart rate isn’t always that slow, or regular. For them, medication can bring it to a more comfortable and healthy pace and reduce the occasions of aberrant racing and irregularity.
Like the lungs, when the heart works properly, we don’t give it much thought. Unlike the lungs, this organ is one of the first to start operating in the unborn baby. Twenty-two days after conception, a tiny, tube-shaped heart begins to beat in an embryo that is not yet one-fourth of an inch long. Within a few more weeks, four separate chambers will develop and the tiny walnut sized heart will beat at a rate to between 155 and 190. Some people believe a faster fetal heart rateabove 165- indicates the baby will be a girl.
Because of central location of the heart in the body and its role in supporting blood circulation to all parts of the body, the heart lends its name to the center or core of anything, as in “the heart of the matter.” Historically, some people have considered the heart to be the seat of the soul. Noting that the pulse rate changed in relationship to anger, fear, and love, the Romans associated emotion with the heart. Thus, the heart became iconicized to represent love.
Your heart is really only a hollow, muscular organ about the size of your fist, perched in the left side of your chest. It has four chambers which are supposed to work in tandem, contracting and relaxing to push blood into the lungs for oxygenation and, to every organ and cell of the body.
Just like the body it serves, the heart itself must have an adequate supply of blood to keep its muscle working. As you age, the elasticity of your blood vessels decreases and the passageway within the arteries can narrow with the build-up of fatty deposits (a process called atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis). When the cardiac blood vessles become clogged, the heart muscle may become starved for blood and oxygen. You may experience angina, or chest pain then. If a vessel becomes completely or nearly completely blocked, the heart muscle it serves can be damaged and die. Doctors call this a “heart attack.”
The symptoms of a heart attack are different for men and women. Men experience chest, jaw or shoulder pain, or indigestion, shortness of breath, tightness or pressure in the chest, and sweating. Men describe a heart attack as “an elephant sitting on my chest.” And many men say, “I can’t possibly be having a heart attack.”
Women tend to have more subtle symptoms: indigestion, fatigue, sleeplessness, an ache in the left shoulder, jaw, or between the shoulder blades. Women also tend to blame their symptoms on anything but a heart attack. Unfortunately, women seek medical help less frequently, or when they do show up at the Emergency Room, are not treated as promptly and thoroughly as men, and therefore, have higher rates of death from heart attack than men.
Male or female, if you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical help and be persistent, and insist that your heart be proven healthy first before other sources of the symptoms are investigated.