Since 1910, cardiovascular disease has been the number one killer, claiming 18 million lives a year.

Heart health is essential to us, yet we know very little about this vital organ. Dissecting the heart’s structure and the different treatment options available, along with balancing the clinical and sometimes cynical issues with thoroughly enjoyable anecdotes, it’s hard not to immerse yourself in Heart: A History. According to author Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, “This book is about what the heart is, how it has been handled by medicine, and how we can most wisely live with – as well as by – our hearts in the future.”

Dr. Jauhar, a medical doctor, was noticing he felt out of breath frequently. He diligently got his condition checked out and learned, along with other minor issues, his main artery feeding into his heart had a “30 to 50 percent obstruction near the opening and a 50 percent blockage in the mid-portion.”

His paternal grandfather died of a heart attack at 57 years old and his maternal grandfather at 83. His personal and familial experiences have guided his career and currently, he is a cardiologist and the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

“Understanding how and why my grandfather died, and what implications his premature death had for my father, my siblings, and me, was fundamentally intertwined with my decision to train in cardiology.”

Filled with medical history and peppered with incredible stories of brave doctors who risked their own lives to study the heart, Heart: A History is incredibly informative and includes comprehensible descriptions of experiments and procedures that explain how the heart works and how medicine has improved drastically so today we can fix certain problems.

“The scale of heart disease in the 1950s was like that of AIDS in the 1980s: a disease that dominated American medicine both clinically and politically. More than 600,000 Americans were dying of heart disease every year. In 1945, the budget for medical research at the National Institutes of Health was $180,000. Five years later, it was $46 million. ”  Based on research, heart health in this country is declining and we are challenged with finding new solutions.  Heart transplants are successful but we will never have enough hearts available for those in need, so other solutions to heart disease must be pursued.

Dr. Jauhar explains how we associate the heart with our feelings and use the name of the organ to represent emotions, like “wearing your heart on your sleeve,” “your heart’s not in it,” “change of heart” and “bleeding heart.” Even though these are just expressions, feelings and emotions often have a big effect on the heart and how it reacts to stresses and overall function.

 Recognizing the importance of emotional health with physical health, Dr. Jauhar says, “Over the years, I have learned that the proper care of my patients depends on trying to understand (or at least recognize) their emotional states, stresses, worries, and fears. There is no other way to practice heart medicine. For even if the heart is not the seat of the emotions, it is highly responsive to them. “

“The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the ‘sympathetic’ system, which mediates the fight-or-flight reaction, using adrenaline to speed up the heart and increase blood pressure; and the ‘parasympathetic’ system, which has the opposite effect, slowing respirations and heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, and promoting digestion. Both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves travel along blood vessels and terminate in nerve cells within the heart to help regulate the heart’s emotional reactions.”

Procedures and practices have advanced greatly over the past 75 years. In the late 1940s chest compressions were discovered to help raise blood pressure and now are common practice in resuscitations. In 1954 advanced open heart surgery was extremely rare (being conducted by only one doctor) using cross-circulation (another healthy person as a donor).  

In 1977 the first balloon coronary angioplasty was performed in Switzerland. The doctor came to the United States in 1980 to continue his research.  This led to clot-busting drugs (which although still experimental and not approved by the FDA at the time, saved my father’s life as he suffered a heart attack in the late 1980s.) The automatic defibrillator was approved by the FDA in 1985. Even though there has been a drop in cardiovascular mortality, we still must continue on the path of research and discovery.

Heart: A History was easy to read and provided an exciting overview of the monumental strides made in 20th century medicine.  It also fed my curiosity and obsession with surgery that often gets fulfilled while watching medical shows on tv including “Chicago Med,” “Untold Stories of the ER and the graphic “Dr. Pimple Popper!”  I highly recommend this book to those who have a curiosity about science and the heart.

Heart: A History is now available for purchase.

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Photo: Maryanne Russell

Sandeep Jauhar has written three books, all published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. His first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, was a national bestseller and was optioned by NBC for a dramatic television series.

His second book, Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, released in August 2014, was a New York Times bestseller and was named a New York Post Best Book of 2014. It was praised as “highly engaging and disarmingly candid” by The Wall Street Journal, “beautifully written and unsparing” by The Boston Globe, and “extraordinary, brave and even shocking” by The New York Times.

Heart: A History, his latest book, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ.

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