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February is American Heart Month. What better time to learn more about this amazing organ that works so tirelessly?

• Not only is your heart about the size of your fist, it also grows with you at the same rate as your fist. During childhood, when the heart goes through its most rapid growth, it needs more oxygen. That’s why our hearts beat around 120 times per minute as an infant, and 90 times when we’re about seven or eight years old. By the time we’re 18, the heart has stopped growing, and we maintain an adult heart rate of about 70 beats per minute.

• Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It is actually caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. The esophagus doesn’t have the same protective lining that the stomach has, which is why acid reflux can be so painful for sufferers.

• Your heart is located almost directly in the center in your chest, between your lungs. The upper tip of the heart, however, tilts to the left, which is why we often feel or “hear” our heartbeat on our left side.

• The heart is a muscle, and is probably the hardest-working one in your body. Your heart exerts more energy when you’re asleep than your leg muscles do when you’re awake and running. Try to squeeze a tennis ball as hard as you can with one hand. That’s approximately the force your heart exerts in one beat, to pump blood throughout your body.

• Being overweight taxes the heart in two ways. First, every pound of excess fat contains about 200 miles of capillaries that the heart has to pump blood through. Second, there’s the extra stress of just carrying the additional weight – it’s like the difference you feel in your arm muscles when lifting a cup of coffee versus lifting a ten-pound dumbbell.

• The fastest way to a person’s heart may not be through the stomach after all, but through the teeth. Those who have a history of heart trouble, whether it be a valve replacement, pacemaker, or a history of rheumatic fever, must take extra-good care of their choppers. The gums are a prime spot for bacteria to enter the bloodstream, where they make a beeline for the heart. Always advise your dentist of any heart concerns, as he’ll likely prescribe antibiotics as a precaution before any dental procedure.

• If you listen to your heart with a stethoscope, you’ll notice that it makes two distinctively different sounds while it beats: lub-dub, lub-dub. The “lub” is the sound of the valves that control the blood flow from the upper to the lower chambers of your heart. It’s a second set of valves, the ones that control the blood flow moving out of the heart and into the body, that produce the “dub” sound.

• If the doctor hears a whooshing sound in addition to the typical “lub-dub” when he’s listening to your heart, you might have what’s known as a murmur. Usually, heart murmurs aren’t serious, but they do call for further medical investigation.

• If you were to dissect your heart and look inside (something we don’t recommend, by the way), you’d see that the left ventricle (lower chamber) is much thicker and more muscular than the right. That’s because the right ventricle only has to pump blood as far as your lungs. Once your blood has been re-oxygenated, it travels back to the heart, where the left ventricle has the responsibility of pumping it out to all the other areas of your body.

• Dr. Bill Bigelow was a Canadian surgeon who developed the first viable method for performing open heart surgery. The Toronto native had noticed how hibernating animals survived the cold winters by slowing down their heartbeats. Bigelow experimented with various techniques and ultimately found that by cooling a patient down to the point of hypothermia, the heart could be stopped for 10 minutes without any damage or harmful effects.

• Your blood platelets release a chemical called thromboxane, which helps blood to clot. Aspirin prohibits the release of thromboxane, which is how it helps to prevent a heart attack.

• Nitroglycerin is a vasodilator; it opens up the blood vessels to improve the flow of blood through them. Nitroglycerin is prescribed for angina attacks and is often administered when a patient is having a heart attack. The problem is that it not only dilates the blood vessels in the heart, but those in the head as well. That sudden rush of blood to the brain is what causes that dreaded “nitroglycerine headache.”

• The medicinal properties of nitroglycerin were discovered by accident. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and namesake of the Nobel Prizes, utilized nitro in his factory. Several of his laborers with heart problems noticed that their chest pains stopped when they came to work. It turned out that the nitroglycerin vapor was dilating the employees’ blood vessels, alleviating their heart symptoms.

• In 1982, Barney Clark became the first recipient of an artificial heart. The retired, 61-year-old dentist was suffering from end-stage heart disease and was not a candidate for a transplant. Clark survived for 112 days with the Jarvik-7 inside his chest. The latest research is focusing on ventricular assist devices, which do not replace the heart, but rather are attached to the diseased heart and helps it to pump.

• Studies have shown that orchestra conductors (as a group) are particularly healthy and long-lived. Part of the reason is that their regular work motions, holding the arms up and moving them around for long periods of time, provide ample aerobic exercise to help keep their heart and lungs in good shape.

• Doctors tell us that the number one contributor to heart disease is high blood pressure, or hypertension. It is often referred to as “the silent killer,” since one in three of the nearly 50 million Americans who have the condition aren’t aware of it. This is why it is so important to have your blood pressure checked by a medical professional regularly (at least every year; even more often as you get older).

• One abnormal reading does not necessarily mean that one suffers from high blood pressure. Most doctors won’t diagnose hypertension until a patient has had at least two high readings on two separate occasions. Some patients suffer from “white coat” hypertension – they’re so nervous in the doctor’s office that their pressure automatically goes up. That’s why many doctors often ask patients to take readings at home to track their “normal” blood pressure.

• No article about the heart would be complete without a reminder to eat lots of leafy green vegetables, get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week, see your doctor for regular check-ups, and avoid smoking. And avoid stress whenever possible as well. You could always curl up with an issue of Tidbits!


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