Heart Check

Heart Check

Get to know how your heart really works, and what it may be trying to tell you, with these tips from YOU: The Owner's Manual

When you feel your own pulse pressing upward to your skin, what do you picture going on inside your body? Most of us picture the heart beating like a drum or like a ball being squeezed. But the heart really twists or wrings blood out like wringing water from a town, more than thumps. After that, it's on to the rest of the body.

See, your heart is like the main hub in a subway system, the place through which all trains must travel. Your arteries and veins are the tracks and tunnels, which transport passengers (blood) to stations throughout your body.

Now, what happens if there's a break in the tracks, or some kind of obstruction won't let the trains get through? In the case of the subway, you'd have some pretty irate customers. And in your body, if the blockage goes on long enough, it could shut down vital organs. Yep, we're talking total system failure.

To get a better idea of how things can go wrong, let's take a look inside.

Aging arteries
When your arteries are clear and uninjured, blood can easily flow through them. But several things can throw a wrench into this process, such as:

  • Nicks: Factors you can largely control, such as high blood sugar, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, and high homocysteine, can nick the smooth inner layer of the arteries.
  • Clogs: When a nick forms, your body rushes to repair the wound with cholesterol. And in its zeal to heal, it slaps on the bad stuff (LDL cholesterol) like too much plaster over a hole. This triggers inflammation, which signals white cells to invade the area.
  • Clots: The resulting plaque becomes irritated and ruptures, which prompts a blood clot to form. And if the clot suddenly closes off the artery—Boom! It can cause a heart attack, a stroke, impotence, and memory loss.

About half of people with coronary artery disease also develop electrical problems. The effect is irregular heartbeats, like atrial fibrillation. The miracle of today's medicine is that people prone to irregular rhythms can get an implant put into their chest that shocks the heart back to regular beats.

Leaky plumbing
Heart valves keep blood from leaking backward into the chambers it has just left. The most common valve problem is mitral valve prolapse, in which the valve between the left atrium and left ventricle doesn't slam shut fully. The faulty process irritates the nerves in the atrium, which in turn can cause palpitations and sweating. The condition can be treated with medicine, but most people end up outgrowing it.

Taking control
The good news is that you don't have to sit around and wait for stuff to go wrong inside your heart and arteries. There are things you can do right now to halt unnecessary aging and wear and tear. To see how you can keep your heart younger longer, check out this Live Younger 6-Step Action Plan for your heart.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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