By Linda Stamato
The human heart beats 3 billion times in a normal lifetime, driving blood through 100,000 miles of blood vessels.
It’s an incredible machine. And there have been huge advances in treating its malfunctions and maladies. But the medical has overlooked the metaphorical, with potentially deadly results, according to Sandeep Jauhar, M.D., Ph.D., and author of Heart: A History.
You really can die from a broken heart, in the poetic sense, Jauhar said over the weekend, at the fifth annual Morristown Festival of Books.
Extensive studies have shown a relationship between the heart and our emotional system, he explained, describing “broken heart syndrome.”
After losing a lover, a spouse, or a cherished pet, people may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, and a shocked heart muscle that can cause heart failure.
Social upheaval can trigger such failure, according to studies in earthquake regions. So can a perceived lack of control, and, not surprisingly, stress.
Blood vessels constrict and restrict blood flow, weakening the heart. Most studies track easily measurable factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, diet and exercise. But psycho-social factors may be equally important for heart health, contends Jauhar, director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and a frequent writer for the New York Times.
These factors include a sense of connection, family- or community ties that are essential to human life. The implications are significant, from designing cities that encourage more walking and connecting, to meditation and stress reduction practices.
Our hearts need our help, said Jauhar, who has first-hand knowledge. He shared that he has inherited coronary disease.
Jauhar finds it stunning that heart disease “executes men—mostly men—in the prime of their lives.” You can be healthy, he said, and simply die.
Still, your odds of surviving have improved dramatically in recent times.
Consider that there was no surgery at all on the heart until the late 19th century. Other organs, such as the brain, had been operated on much earlier.
Why the delay? Cultural taboos, for one thing. Another obstacle was biological. The heart is always moving and it’s filled with blood. In one minute, all the blood in the body passes through this vital organ. How do you fix something that won’t stand still?
One daring surgeon concluded a machine was needed to pump blood during heart surgery. Mindful that a pregnant woman provides blood to her fetus, this fellow asked why couldn’t two people be linked to do essentially that?
Experiments in the 1950s involved animals, first, and then children on the verge of death from congenital heart conditions. Those children were hooked up to parents to allow surgery to be performed.
Early patients died of brain damage from insufficient oxygen. Yet some lived, and these early experiments paved the way for heart and lung machines and the first artificial heart.
Most of the innovations occurred in America, Jauhar noted.
Of course, notions of the heart as “seat of the soul” and source of love and passion predate the United States.
Now, it’s time to bridge the gap between physicians and philosophers, Jauhar asserted.
We need to attend to the heart as machine, when it fails. But we also must pay more attention to emotional factors that can keep the heart healthy.
Linda Stamato lives in Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood, and is a faculty member at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.