Heart, in anatomy, hollow muscular organ that pumps blood through the body. The heart, blood, and blood vessels make up the circulatory system, which is responsible for distributing oxygen and nutrients to the body and carrying away carbon dioxide and other waste products. The heart is the circulatory system’s power supply. It must beat ceaselessly because the body’s tissues—especially the brain and the heart itself—depend on a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients delivered by the flowing blood. If the heart stops pumping blood for more than a few minutes, death will result.
The human heart is shaped like an upside-down pear and is located slightly to the left of center inside the chest cavity. About the size of a closed fist, the heart is made primarily of muscle tissue that contracts rhythmically to propel blood to all parts of the body. This rhythmic contraction begins in the developing embryo about three weeks after conception and continues throughout an individual’s life. The muscle rests only for a fraction of a second between beats. Over a typical life span of 76 years, the heart will beat nearly 2.8 billion times and move 169 million liters (179 million quarts) of blood.
Since prehistoric times people have had a sense of the heart’s vital importance. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago depict a stylized heart inside the outline of hunted animals such as bison and elephant. The ancient Greeks believed the heart was the seat of intelligence. Others believed the heart to be the source of the soul or of the emotions—an idea that persists in popular culture and various verbal expressions, such as heartbreak, to the present day.
STRUCTURE OF THE HEART
The human heart has four chambers. The upper two chambers, the right and left atria, are receiving chambers for blood. The atria are sometimes known as auricles. They collect blood that pours in from veins, blood vessels that return blood to the heart. The heart’s lower two chambers, the right and left ventricles, are the powerful pumping chambers. The ventricles propel blood into arteries, blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart.
A wall of tissue separates the right and left sides of the heart. Each side pumps blood through a different circuit of blood vessels: The right side of the heart pumps oxygen-poor blood to the lungs, while the left side of the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body. Blood returning from a trip around the body has given up most of its oxygen and picked up carbon dioxide in the body’s tissues. This oxygen-poor blood feeds into two large veins, the superior vena cava and inferior vena cava, which empty into the right atrium of the heart.The right atrium conducts blood to the right ventricle, and the right ventricle pumps blood into the pulmonary artery. The pulmonary artery carries the blood to the lungs, where it picks up a fresh supply of oxygen and eliminates carbon dioxide. The blood, now oxygen-rich, returns to the heart through the pulmonary veins, which empty into the left atrium. Blood passes from the left atrium into the left ventricle, from where it is pumped out of the heart into the aorta, the body’s largest artery. Smaller arteries that branch off the aorta distribute blood to various parts of the body.
Four valves within the heart prevent blood from flowing backward in the heart. The valves open easily in the direction of blood flow, but when blood pushes against the valves in the opposite direction, the valves close. Two valves, known as atrioventricular valves, are located between the atria and ventricles. The right atrioventricular valve is formed from three flaps of tissue and is called the tricuspid valve. The left atrioventricular valve has two flaps and is called the bicuspid or mitral valve. The other two heart valves are located between the ventricles and arteries. They are called semilunar valves because they each consist of three half-moon-shaped flaps of tissue. The right semilunar valve, between the right ventricle and pulmonary artery, is also called the pulmonary valve. The left semilunar valve, between the left ventricle and aorta, is also called the aortic valve.