The beat goes on … maybe
Eighty-six thousand times a day your heart contracts to circulate blood to all parts of your body. At the start of each beat, the heart’s two upper chambers (atria) contract to fill the lower chambers (ventricles) with blood. Then the ventricles contract to deliver blood to the lungs and the rest of the body. This sequence happens about once a second, repeating over and over all day long and it never gets bored. The heart has its own natural pacemaker that serves to start each beat and control how fast the sequence repeats itself. There is a circuitry, of sorts, that runs through the heart, from top to bottom, guiding the impulse, from the pacemaker through the heart muscle in a way that triggers each cell to beat in the right sequence.
That’s about 31 million (give or take) regular, coordinated beats over a lifetime. Just the thought of that is crazy making. Surely the heart must make some mistakes. Yes, it does. The vast majority are trivial, nothing more than heart farts. Sometimes, however, the heart may beat too fast, too slow, irregularly, uncoordinated, or not at all. Very fast and very slow heart rates may not generate enough blood pressure to keep a person conscious. The common endpoint for these “arrhythmias” may be a severe drop in blood pressure and you doing a three-point landing, nose and toes. If any of these arrhythmias are sustained, they can cause a person to pass out or die.
There is one arrhythmia that is unusual for its tendency to cause stroke. It is called “atrial fibrillation” or “Afib” for short. Afib is surprisingly common in the population above 50 years of age. It can not only cause the heart to beat too fast, but it also makes the risk of stroke much higher. The upper chambers of the heart beat so fast and irregularly that blood tends to pool in them. Clots can form and if a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, a stroke can result.
How would you know if these kinds of problems were developing in your heart? Palpations may be one clue. A palpation is the sensation of abnormal beats, such as too hard, to fast, etc. If palpations are accompanied by symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness, then they need to be taken very seriously. If they are not, they still need to be evaluated, but a little less urgently. An irregular pulse is another clue. If you place a finger on your wrist, over the radial artery, it is pretty easy to tell if your heart beat is regular or not. You would like to feel a nice, regular, military march beat. If it’s the mambo, samba, or the salsa, then you’ve got problems. These irregular rhythms can usually be diagnosed with an ECG.
Having said all of this, the next logical question is “Do heart beats contribute to global warming?” I’m glad you asked and yes, they do. Remember the heart beats 30 to 40 million times over a lifetime; with each beat producing a little of the green house gas carbon dioxide. If you feel concerned about global warming, then you can 1.) Stop breathing; 2.) Develop a fatal arrhythmia; or 3.) Read a book titled “Earth, the Sequel,” 10 free copies of which are available at Islehaven Books for the asking. It is one of the few books about global warming that didn’t give me an arrhythmia. Fred Krupp has some very interesting ideas about how to save the planet that actually have a chance of success.