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Health, National Pathology Year

Love your heart

2012 is National Pathology Year.  The theme for February is “Love your Heart.  February is also American Heart Month (no prizes for guessing why the heart is a hot topic this particular month).

All the cells in your body rely on your heart.  They rely on the nutrients and oxygen that the blood delivers to them when it is pumped around the body by the heart.  They also rely just as much on its function to dispose of waste products.  If blood remained stationary, the cells would rapidly drain its resources and completely saturate it with waste so that no more could be absorbed.  The knock on effect of this would be that components such as hormones and immune cells could no longer be transported to where they’re needed.

To keep your body functioning well, your heart beats around 100,000 times a day, pumping around 8000 litres of blood.  The contractions of the heart muscles are what we can feel as a pulse, most prominently in our wrists or neck, as the arteries imitate the heart’s rhythm.  It was thought that anyone without a pulse would be dead, that was at least until March, 2011, when two surgeons in Texas Dr Billy Cohn and Dr Bud Frazier got the opportunity to implant an artificial heart into their patient, Craig Lewis.  Craig had just hours to live due to heart failure caused by a condition known as amyloidosis, so neither patient nor doctors had anything to lose.  The procedure was a success, however, Craig no longer had a pulse.

Check out this incredible story, here:

Heart Stop Beating | Jeremiah Zagar from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Sadly, due to complications with amyloidosis spreading to other organs, Craig died a month later, but the breakthrough here is that he did not die through problems with the artificial heart.  This one-off chance to test the viability of the artificial heart has now created a whole new hope for future implications in other patients with threatening heart conditions.

Like in this case of amyloidosis, there are other heart conditions that cannot be prevented; these include genetic disorders such as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, Long QT Syndrome and Marfan Syndrome.  The leading causes of heart disease, however, are preventable because the biggest risk factors are lifestyle choices; what we eat and drink, how we cope with stress and how much we exercise and smoke.

The majority of us are lucky enough to help ourselves in the prevention of heart disease.  To make it easier for us, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) have set out some heart-healthy guidelines:


Eating the wrong kinds or amounts of food can lead to such things as high blood pressure, clogging of the arteries and fat build up around the heart that restricts its ability to beat efficiently.  BHF diet guidelines to help prevent this are:

– eat five portions of fruit and veg, everyday

– switch to wholegrain starch foods where available

– some milk and dairy produce

– some meat, fish and other non-dairy proteins

– small amounts of produce high in sugar/fats, making sure to reduce your saturated fat intake as this fat increases your cholesterol levels.  Switch to mono- and poly-unsaturated (e.g. omega-3) fats where possible.

– reduce your salt intake to prevent high blood pressure

For ideas about what to cook and for heart-healthy recipes, the BHF have published a cook book to make those decisions for you.  The recipes are easy and quick.  Just click on the book and follow the link if you’re interested.


Alcohol can be problematic not only for the heart; it can also lead to liver disease (steatosis), stroke and cancers, such as stomach and mouth.  As alcohol is also high in calories, reducing your intake not only helps prevent these diseases, it also helps prevent against weight gain.

The recommended daily alcohol limits should not be exceeded, even if you don’t drink every day.  Allowances vary with gender:

Women: 2-3 units per day

Men: 3-4 units per day

If you’re not sure if your drinking habit is within safe limits, use the BHF’s handy units calculator to find out.


BHF do not endorse that stress is a direct cause of heart disease, however, they do recognise that if you struggle when the burdens pile on, this can contribute to conditions such as angina or simply exacerbate underlying heart conditions.  They simply recommend regular exercise, that we remain positive and learn how to relax and/or manage stress.


Keeping active helps your heart in a number of ways.  It controls your weight, lowers your cholesterol levels and reduces your blood pressure.  For some great tips on getting active – involving less effort than you probably imagine – check out this advice.


Smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease.  It causes the build up of fatty plaques in arteries that lead to restricted blood flow, it reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the organs and it increases the heart rate by inducing adrenaline production, which subsequently causes high blood pressure.  There are no guidelines advising safe limits on smoking, the only advice is to quit.

If you want to quit smoking there is lots of online advice.  If you’re in the UK, the NHS also provide a free Quit Kit to help you.

More people die from heart failure than cancer.  In fact, heart failure is the leading cause of death, worldwide.  It’s hard to believe that our planet’s biggest killer is one of the most easily preventable diseases; all we have to do is make some lifestyle changes.  Is your life worth that much?  I think it is.  Looking after your heart needn’t be a struggle.  Look after your heart and it will look after you.

Love your heart.


About Della Thomas

Hello, my name is Della and I'm a Specialist Scientific Lead in histological dissection working for the NHS in England.


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Della Thomas

Della Thomas

Hello, my name is Della and I'm a Specialist Scientific Lead in histological dissection working for the NHS in England.

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