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The Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system consists of the heart and blood vessels (see Figure 7.1); together, they move blood
throughout the body.

FIGURE 7.1 The Cardiovascular System
The Heart

The heart is a four-chambered, fist-sized muscle located just beneath the sternum (breastbone). It pumps
deoxygenated (oxygen-poor) blood to the lungs and delivers oxygenated (oxygen-rich) blood to the rest of the
body. Blood actually travels through two separate circulatory systems: The right side of the heart pumps blood to
the lungs in what is called pulmonary circulation, and the left side pumps blood through the rest of the body in
systemic circulation.

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The following steps describe the path blood follows as it travels through the cardiovascular system (see Figure

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1. Waste-laden, oxygen-poor blood travels through large vessels, called venae cavae, into the heart's right
upper chamber, called the atrium.

2. After the right atrium fills, it contracts and pumps blood into the heart's right lower chamber, called the

3. When the right ventricle is full, it contracts and pumps blood through the pulmonary artery into the lungs.

4. In the lungs, blood picks up oxygen and discards carbon dioxide.

5. The cleaned, oxygenated blood flows from the lungs through the pulmonary veins into the heart's left

6. After the left atrium fills, it contracts and pumps blood into the left ventricle.

7. When the left ventricle is full, it pumps blood through the aortathe body's largest arteryfor
distribution to the rest of the body's blood vessels.

Click here for a description of Figure 7.2 Circulation in the Heart.

FIGURE 7.2 Circulation in the Heart
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The period of the heart's contraction is called systole; the period of relaxation is called diastole. During systole,
the atria contract first, pumping blood into the ventricles. A fraction of a second later, the ventricles contract,
pumping blood to the lungs and the body. During diastole, blood flows into the heart. Blood pressure, the force
exerted by blood on the walls of the blood vessels, is created by the pumping action of the heart; blood pressure
is greater during systole than during diastole.

The heartbeatthe split-second sequence of contractions of the heart's four chambersis controlled by nerve
impulses. These signals originate in a bundle of specialized cells in the right atrium called the sinoatrial node, or
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pacemaker. Unless it is speeded up or slowed down by the brain in response to stimuli, such as danger or the
tissues' need for more oxygen, the heart produces nerve impulses at a steady rate.

The Blood Vessels

Blood vessels are classified by size and function. Veins carry blood to the heart. Arteries carry blood away
from the heart. Veins have thin walls, but arteries have thick elastic walls that enable them to expand and relax
with the volume of blood being pumped through them. After leaving the heart, the aorta branches into smaller
and smaller vessels. The smallest arteries branch still further into capillaries, tiny vessels only one cell thick.
The capillaries deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the tissues and pick up oxygen-poor, waste-laden
blood. From the capillaries, this blood empties into small veins (venules) and then into larger veins that return it
to the heart to repeat the cycle.

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How often do you think about the health of your heart? Are there certain situations, for example, that make you
aware of your heart rate, or make you wonder how strong your heart is? What's one change you could make to
support your heart's health?

Blood pumped through the heart does not reach the cells of the heart, so the organ has its own network of
arteries, veins, and capillaries (see Figure 7.3). Two large vessels, the right and left coronary arteries, branch
off the aorta and supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood. Blockage of a coronary artery is a leading
cause of heart attacks.

Click here for a description of Figure 7.3 Blood supply to the heart.


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FIGURE 7.3 Blood Supply to the Heart


A 68-kilogram person has about 5 litres of blood, which circulates about once each minute.

CDC, 2007

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