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Heart and Circulatory System

With each heartbeat, blood is sent throughout our bodies, carrying oxygen and nutrients to every cell. Every day, the approximately 10 pints (5 liters) of blood in your body travel many times through about 60,000 miles (96,560 kilometers) of blood vessels that branch and cross, linking the cells of our organs and body parts.

About the Heart and Circulatory System

The circulatory system is composed of the heart and blood vessels, including arteries, veins, and capillaries. Our bodies actually have two circulatory systems:

  1. The circulation is a short loop from the heart to the lungs and back again.
  2. The systemic circulation (the system we usually think of as our circulatory system) sends blood from the heart to all the other parts of our bodies and back again.

The heart is the key organ in the circulatory system. As a hollow, muscular pump, its main job is to move blood through the body. It usually beats from 60 to 100 times per minute, but can go much faster if needed. It beats about 100,000 times a day, more than 30 million times per year, and about 2.5 billion times in a 70-year lifetime.

The heart gets messages from the body that tell it when to pump more or less blood depending on an individual's needs. When we're sleeping, it pumps just enough to provide for the lower amounts of oxygen needed by our bodies at rest. When we're exercising or frightened, the heart pumps faster to increase the delivery of oxygen.

The heart has four chambers that are enclosed by thick, muscular walls. It lies between the lungs and just to the left of the middle of the chest cavity. The bottom part of the heart is divided into two chambers: the right ventricle and the left ventricle. These pump blood out of the heart. A wall called the interventricular septum divides the ventricles.

The upper part of the heart is made up of the other two chambers of the heart: the right atrium and the left atrium. The atria receive the blood entering the heart. A wall called the interatrial septum divides the atria, which are separated from the ventricles by the atrioventricular valves. The tricuspid valve separates the right atrium from the right ventricle, and the mitral valve separates the left atrium from the left ventricle.Illustration: Healthy Heart

Two other cardiac valves separate the ventricles and the large blood vessels that carry blood leaving the heart. These are the pulmonic valve, which separates the right ventricle from the pulmonary artery leading to the lungs, and the aortic valve, which separates the left ventricle from the aorta, the body's largest blood vessel.

Arteries carry blood away from the heart. They are the thickest blood vessels, with muscular walls that contract to keep the blood moving away from the heart and through the body. In the systemic circulation, oxygen-rich blood is pumped from the heart into the aorta. This huge artery curves up and back from the left ventricle, then heads down in front of the spinal column into the abdomen. Two coronary arteries branch off at the beginning of the aorta and divide into a network of smaller arteries that provide oxygen and nourishment to the muscles of the heart.

Unlike the aorta, the body's other main artery, the pulmonary artery, carries oxygen-poor blood. From the right ventricle, the pulmonary artery divides into right and left branches, on the way to the lungs where blood picks up oxygen.

As they get farther from the heart, the arteries branch out into arterioles, which are smaller and less elastic.

Veins carry blood back to the heart. They're not as muscular as arteries, but they contain valves that prevent blood from flowing backward. Veins have the same three layers that arteries do, but are thinner and less flexible. The two largest veins are the superior and inferior vena cavae. The terms superior and inferior don't mean that one vein is better than the other, but that they're located above and below the heart.

A network of tiny capillaries connects the arteries and veins. Though tiny, the capillaries are one of the most important parts of the circulatory system because it's through them that nutrients and oxygen are delivered to the cells. Waste products such as carbon dioxide are also removed by the capillaries.

What the Heart and Circulatory System Do

The circulatory system works closely with other systems in our bodies. It supplies oxygen and nutrients to our bodies by working with the respiratory system. At the same time, the circulatory system helps carry waste and carbon dioxide out of the body.

Hormones — produced by the endocrine system — are also transported through the blood in the circulatory system. As the body's chemical messengers, hormones transfer information and instructions from one set of cells to another. For example, one of the hormones produced by the heart helps control the kidneys' release of salt from the body.

One complete heartbeat makes up a cardiac cycle, which consists of two phases:

  1. In the first phase, the ventricles contract (this is called systole), sending blood into the pulmonary and systemic circulation. To prevent the flow of blood backward into the atria during systole, the atrioventricular valves close, creating the first sound (the lub). When the ventricles finish contracting, the aortic and pulmonary valves close to prevent blood from flowing back into the ventricles. This is what creates the second sound (the dub).
  2. Then the ventricles relax (this is called diastole) and fill with blood from the atria, which makes up the second phase of the cardiac cycle.

A unique electrical conduction system in the heart causes it to beat in its regular rhythm. The sinus (or sinoatrial) node, a small area of tissue in the wall of the right atrium, sends out an electrical signal to start the contracting of the heart muscle. This node is called the pacemaker of the heart because it sets the rate of the heartbeat and causes the rest of the heart to contract in its rhythm.

These electrical impulses cause the atria to contract first, and then travel down to the atrioventricular or AV node, which acts as a kind of relay station. From here the electrical signal travels through the right and left ventricles, causing them to contract and forcing blood out into the major arteries.

In the systemic circulation, blood travels out of the left ventricle, to the aorta, to every organ and tissue in the body, and then back to the right atrium. The arteries, capillaries, and veins of the systemic circulatory system are the channels through which this long journey takes place.

Once in the arteries, blood flows to smaller arterioles and then to capillaries. While in the capillaries, the bloodstream delivers oxygen and nutrients to the body's cells and picks up waste materials. Blood then goes back through the capillaries into venules, and then to larger veins until it reaches the vena cavae.

Blood from the head and arms returns to the heart through the superior vena cava, and blood from the lower parts of the body returns through the inferior vena cava. Both vena cavae deliver this oxygen-depleted blood into the right atrium. From here the blood exits to fill the right ventricle, ready to be pumped into the pulmonary circulation for more oxygen.

In the pulmonary circulation, blood low in oxygen but high in carbon dioxide is pumped out the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery, which branches off in two directions. The right branch goes to the right lung, and vice versa.

In the lungs, the branches divide further into capillaries. Blood flows more slowly through these tiny vessels, allowing time for gases to be exchanged between the capillary walls and the millions of alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

During the process called oxygenation, oxygen is taken up by the bloodstream. Oxygen locks onto a molecule called in the red blood cells. The newly oxygenated blood leaves the lungs through the pulmonary veins and heads back to the heart. It enters the heart in the left atrium, then fills the left ventricle so it can be pumped into the systemic circulation.

What Problems Can Happen With the Heart and Circulatory System?

Problems with the cardiovascular system are common — more than 64 million Americans have some type of cardiac problem. But cardiovascular problems don't just affect older people — many heart and circulatory system problems affect children and teens too.

Heart and circulatory problems are grouped into two categories: congenital (problems someone is born with) and acquired (problems developed some time after birth). 

To help keep the heart healthy and avoid long-term problems, adults and kids should:

  • Get plenty of exercise.
  • Eat a nutritious diet.
  • Reach and keep a healthy weight.
  • Have regular medical checkups.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2018

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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