The heart is a fascinating muscle. Like, did you know that the average heart is about the size of your fist? Or that your heart can beat an astonishing 115,000 times every day? Here are a few more fun facts about the heart.
The Heart Is Controlled by a Complex Electrical System
The heart’s electrical system is known as the cardiac conduction system. It keeps your heart beating steadily and allows for a constant supply of blood and oxygen to organs throughout your body. Because the electrical impulse is so strong, the heart can continue to beat even when it’s removed from the body. All it needs is a steady supply of oxygen.
When a glitch disrupts the heart’s electrical impulse, the heartbeat becomes irregular. This is known as an arrhythmia. Heart arrhythmias must be closely monitored and contained, as they can lead to a condition called cardiac arrest where the heart stops beating altogether. Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Heart Cancer Is a Real Thing, But It’s Extremely Rare
Heart cancer (primary cardiac tumor) is so rare that you might not have even heard of it. Malignant tumors called sarcomas sometimes originate on the heart, but the overwhelming majority of heart tumors are benign. One study found only 7 primary cardiac tumors after researchers reviewed over 12,000 autopsies. Even the Mayo Clinic only encounters one case of heart cancer per year on average.
There’s a good reason why heart cancer is so rare. Cancerous mutations usually occur during cell division, but heart cells (called myocytes) divide far less often than other cells throughout the body—especially in adults.
The First Case of Heart Disease Was in Ancient Egypt
More than 3,500 years ago, an Egyptian princess named Ahmose-Meritamun was laid to rest in a royal tomb. While all Egyptian excavations are fascinating, hers is uniquely noteworthy due to the amount of calcification in her arteries.
Ahmose-Meritamun represents the oldest known case of human heart disease. We tend to think of heart disease as a 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon, but she lived between 1580 and 1550 B.C.E. She was only in her forties when she died.
As a princess in the world’s foremost ancient empire, Ahmose-Meritamun likely had much greater access to fatty foods than the average person. Butter, meats, and cheese were available in abundance for those who could afford them—and not many people could. And since salt was used as a preservative in ancient Egypt, she may have ingested a great deal of sodium. Still, there’s also the possibility that she was genetically predisposed to atherosclerosis, a disease that causes plaque accumulation in the arteries.
The First Open-Heart Surgery Was Performed By a Black Cardiologist in 1893
Daniel Hale Williams is historic for multiple reasons. In 1891, he opened the first medical facility with an interracial staff. There he worked as a surgeon and trained medical personnel of various races and ethnicities, a notion that was unheard of at the time. He even received public praise by the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
In 1893, Williams took part in the first open-heart surgery. A patient named James Cornish was taken to Williams’ facility after being stabbed in the chest. Williams successfully sutured the outer membrane of Cornish’s heart; the treatment is now widely considered one of the first open-heart surgeries. Cornish not only survived the operation but lived for several years thereafter.
The Earliest Heart Defibrillation Was Performed on a Chicken in 1775
Going back in time even further, the first defibrillation was performed at the end of the 18th century—by a veterinarian, no less. Peter Abildgaard, a Danish vet and physician, used targeted electric shocks to stop and restart the heart of a chicken.
Abildgaard wrote a paper outlining his experiment. He noted that the first shock caused the chicken to be “rendered lifeless” and the second shock brought it back. The experiment was repeated a few times, and the chicken only suffered mild side effects the next day. Though it was a small experiment, it got people thinking about the heart in a whole new way.
The Youngest Person to Receive Heart Surgery Was 1 Minute Old
Baby Chanel Murrish holds the Guinness world record for the youngest heart surgery. Just one minute after being born, doctors performed open-heart surgery to treat a rare condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.
This congenital heart defect can be fatal if not treated, and Chanel’s case was particularly sensitive due to the added diagnosis of an intact atrial septum. Doctors at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, UK, were successful in treating the condition. Chanel will still need a heart transplant when she gets older, but right now she’s thriving.
Daylight Saving Time Can Be Bad for Your Heart
Your odds of having a stroke increase by 8 percent immediately following the spring time change, and your odds of heart attack increase by 6.7 percent, this according to a Finnish study.
U.S. researchers conducted their own study and concluded that a person’s heart attack risk can increase by as much as 24 percent during the Monday following the spring change. The reasons aren’t entirely known, but the lack of sleep and the disruption of normal circadian rhythms likely plays a major role. Interestingly, researchers also found that heart attack risk decreases by as much as 21 percent during the Tuesday following the autumn time change.
It’s important to note that the patients observed in these studies were already vulnerable to heart disease.
The Earliest Pacemakers Were Plugged Into a Wall
Imagine having to remain within a few feet of a wall outlet to keep your heart beating safely. That was the case for some unlucky heart patients in the ‘50s. The earliest external pacemakers were as big as a TV set and needed to be plugged in. They contained vacuum tubes and had to be wheeled around on heavy carts.
Worst of all, these pacemakers contained electrodes that irritated the skin and emitted painful electrical shocks. Thankfully the design was improved by the late ‘50s with battery-operated models that could be worn around the neck.
Heart Attacks Are Most Likely to Occur at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve
We all know that Christmas can be stressful, but your heart attack risk may actually increase by a full 40 percent on Christmas Eve. At least, that’s the conclusion of one Swedish study. New Year’s Day also presents a heightened risk.
Once again, the risk is highest among people with existing risk factors like advanced age (75 and over), diabetes, and coronary artery disease.
You Can Die of a Broken Heart…But You Probably Won’t
There’s a real condition called broken heart syndrome, which has symptoms similar to a heart attack. It’s caused by a massive flooding of stress hormones from an emotional or physical stress trigger. The condition appears to affect women more often than men.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome include severe chest pain and shortness of breath. But unlike with a heart attack, most sufferers make a full recovery. Your chances of dying from the condition are next to zero unless you have an existing heart condition like congestive heart failure, chronic low blood pressure, or heart arrhythmias.
Cardiac Arrest Is the #1 Cause of Death
You’ve probably heard that heart disease is the No. 1 killer worldwide, and that’s true…but it’s not the whole story. Heart disease is the condition, but it can trigger many unique causes of death: heart attack, stroke, and—the most common killer—cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest is the sudden loss of heart function, often triggered by an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). Without a heartbeat, other vital organs are unable to receive oxygen-rich blood. Those organs shut down, and death occurs within minutes. Many people buy AED devices for their home or business because a defibrillator shock can often restart the heart before cardiac arrest leads to death.
Heart Disease Was Extremely Uncommon Until a Century Ago
We’ve established that heart disease is the No. 1 killer worldwide, but that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 20th century, it was practically unheard of. Heart disease deaths slowly rose through the first half of the 20th century and peaked in the mid ‘60s.
The trend is widely attributed to changing lifestyle habits: larger portions, easier access to unhealthy foods, and smoking. There is good news, though. Research shows that heart disease deaths are slowly but gradually in decline.
What are your favorite fun facts about the heart? Let us know!