The Heart is the body’s engine room, responsible for pumping life-sustaining blood via a 60,000-mile-long (97,000-kilometer-long) network of vessels. The organ works ceaselessly, beating 100,000 times a day, 40 million times a year—in total clocking up three billion heartbeats over an average lifetime. It keeps the body freshly supplied with oxygen and nutrients, while clearing away harmful waste matter.
The fetal heart evolves through several different stages inside the womb, first resembling a fish’s heart, then a frog’s, which has two chambers, then a snake’s, with three, before finally adopting the four-chambered structure of the human heart.
About the size of its owner’s clenched fist, the organ sits in the middle of the chest, behind the breastbone and between the lungs, in a moistened chamber that is protected all round by the rib cage. It’s made up of a special kind of muscle (cardiac muscle) that works involuntarily, so we don’t have to think about it. The heart speeds up or slow downs automatically in response to nerve signals from the brain that tell it how much the body is being exerted. Normally the heart contracts and relaxes between 70 and 80 times per minute, each heartbeat filling the four chambers inside with a fresh round of blood.
How the Heart Beats
How does the heart beat? Before each beat, your heart fills with blood. Then its muscle contracts to squirt the blood along. When the heart contracts, it squeezes — try squeezing your hand into a fist. That’s sort of like what your heart does so it can squirt out the blood. Your heart does this all day and all night, all the time. The heart is one hard worker!
Parts of the Heart
The heart is made up of four different blood-filled areas, and each of these areas is called a chamber. There are two chambers on each side of the heart. One chamber is on the top and one chamber is on the bottom. The two chambers on top are called the atria (say: AY-tree-uh). If you’re talking only about one, call it an atrium. The atria are the chambers that fill with the blood returning to the heart from the body and lungs. The heart has a left atrium and a right atrium.
The two chambers on the bottom are called the ventricles (say: VEN-trih-kulz). The heart has a left ventricle and a right ventricle. Their job is to squirt out the blood to the body and lungs. Running down the middle of the heart is a thick wall of muscle called the septum (say: SEP-tum). The septum’s job is to separate the left side and the right side of the heart.
The atria and ventricles work as a team — the atria fill with blood, then dump it into the ventricles. The ventricles then squeeze, pumping blood out of the heart. While the ventricles are squeezing, the atria refill and get ready for the next contraction. So when the blood gets pumped, how does it know which way to go?
Well, your blood relies on four special valves inside the heart. A valve lets something in and keeps it there by closing — think of walking through a door. The door shuts behind you and keeps you from going backward.
Two of the heart valves are the mitral (say: MY-trul) valve and the tricuspid (say: try-KUS-pid) valve. They let blood flow from the atria to the ventricles. The other two are called the aortic (say: ay-OR-tik) valve and pulmonary (say: PUL-muh-ner-ee) valve, and they’re in charge of controlling the flow as the blood leaves the heart. These valves all work to keep the blood flowing forward. They open up to let the blood move ahead, then they close quickly to keep the blood from flowing backward.