A Cardiologist's Red-Dress-Day Tribute to the Heart

As highly aware of the heart as people are, they too often take it for granted.

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By Bernadine Healy, M.D.

As February is heart month, February 6 has been designated National Wear Red Day as a way to encourage all of us—men and women, young and old—to think about and pamper that wonderful, hardworking, four-chambered gift. The occasion prompted me to go back and reread a "valentine to the heart" I wrote for U.S. News several years ago, the gist of which I offer again here.

At some level, everyone is an expert on the heart, which has a mind of its own. It is prone to flutter in response to a kiss, skip a few beats in the klieg lights, brace itself in the face of treachery, and slow during slumber—except, of course, as it races and pounds during a nasty dream. And while in today's secular times the heart has lost much of the cachet it once had as the mansion of the soul, it has not lost its grip on us as a romantic symbol of life. We still speak of happy hearts, good hearts, heavy hearts, and brave hearts. We have all felt heartache and have even been heartsick. We've suffered when our heart's desires were not fulfilled and been bewildered by those who are heartless. Our own hearts rally for those who are the lionhearted, and we yearn along with the Tin Man in his desperation for a heart. We see goodness in the heartland and know instinctively that home is where the heart is.

Romance aside, there is no other organ that works so hard and faithfully yet is taken so for granted. Ever vigilant, it sustains all other organs by pumping up to six gallons of blood per minute through some 60,000 miles of tributaries to nourish virtually every cell in the body. It does this work relentlessly, without a rest or meaningful pause. We wear red to honor that and to remind ourselves that the sick, uncared-for heart can afflict the body with profound fatigue, crushing chest pain, dizzying rhythms, and frightening breathlessness. That is the heart that the cardiologist knows, and all too well.

This month, you can find out more about your own heart concerns at the U.S. News heart health center, where highlights include a look at 7 better ways to screen for heart disease, the growing epidemic of congestive heart failure, the decision making that should happen when you're faced with bypass surgery or angioplasty, and the opportunity to get answers from our panel of medical experts.