Daily Herald
Kids ask: How does the heart work?
By Hope Babowice | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 5/12/2010 12:01 AM

A student in Mrs. Paganis' class at Matigan Preschool in Libertyville asked: "How does the heart work?"

Unlike arm or leg muscles, the heart works whether you think about it or not. The constant beating pumps blood from the right side of the heart into the lungs where it picks up oxygen and gets rid of waste. From there the blood flows to the left side of the heart and then is pumped to the rest of the body. This continuous loop of pulsing blood circulating through your body can occur as many as 2 billion times in an average life span.

Dr. Jeffrey Gossett, pediatric cardiologist at the Heart Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said, "The heart is a muscle that gets smaller and larger as it contracts and relaxes. When it relaxes it fills with blood and when it contracts it empties."

The heart also has an electrical system that supplies the needed charge to keep the pump in good working order. "The electrical system keeps the heart beating as fast as the body needs. If you're running or playing, the electrical system goes faster. When you're asleep, it calms down and takes it a little slower," Gossett said.

About 98 percent of babies have a heart that works perfectly.

"Only 2 percent of all children are born with some sort of heart problem, and most are minor," Gossett said.

The most common defect, Gossett said, is a hole in the heart, which in some cases needs to be fixed.

The last 30 to 40 years have seen tremendous advances in heart care.

"We've just hit the 25th anniversary for pediatric heart transplants," Gossett said. "We're doing all sorts of things nowadays that have become relatively routine. Some procedures that used to need open heart surgery are now performed as an outpatient."

Why is it that adults seem to have more heart problems than children? Gossett explains that the heart muscle needs special care to remain healthy for an entire lifetime.

"Too much fatty food and smoking narrow the arteries that supply the heart with blood," he said. "We have a lot of control over how healthy our heart is."

Gossett offers these tips to keep your heart, and the hearts of your loved ones, healthy.

"Be active. Play every day, run and be committed to being active people. Limit screen time and balance it with good activity."

What you put inside your body can make a difference as well.

"Be healthy eaters. Avoid foods that are full of fat," he said.

Check these out

Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville suggests these titles on the heart:

• "Hear Your Heart," by Paul Showers

• "Blood and Heart," by Jen Green

• "The Amazing Circulatory System: How Does My Heart Work?," by John Burstein (also known as Slim Goodbody)

• "What Happens When Your Heart Beats?," by Jacqui Bailey

• "The Circulatory System," by Sue Barraclough