Heymatt: Why when a guy breaks up with you do people say you have a broken heart? Where did your heart start to be the same as sadness or emotions? How can your heart break? — Heather B., via email
Yeah, Heather, it’s hard to believe that some middle-school dork who takes somebody else to the annual sock hop can crinkle your heart into little pieces. But you know, it’s possible. Sort of. Mildly, but crinkled nonetheless. You may not get it now, but odds are there will be major crinkling in your future. That’s just how life goes.
And it’s gone that way since pretty much forever. There are references to the heart as the center of emotions from the earliest writings. So, there must be something to this “broken heart” thing if it’s lasted this long. But, of course, emotions don’t come from the heart, they come from the brain. The limbic system, specifically. But since no one can feel what’s going on in their brain but can really feel the gut-punching, chest-crushing misery of a broken heart, no wonder we’ve connected hearts and despair for millennia.
But does a heart really break — like bad valves on a Chevy? The folks at Johns Hopkins med school decided to get to the bottom of it. In the end, they came up with the official medical diagnosis of broken-heart syndrome. It mimics a mild heart attack, and it seems to be caused principally by stress. The stress of having true love walk out the door or your dear dog die or living with a spouse that short-sheets your bed and hits you with frying pans, that sort of thing.
When true love hits the road, the immediate stress registered in your brain is a signal to shoot adrenaline and other stress hormones into your bloodstream. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, the immune system punks out, heart vessels work harder, and the added workload weakens the heart and makes actual physical changes in it. That’s what the medicos call a broken heart. You have to agree, it’s pretty broken down. Luckily, the symptoms aren’t permanent. Within a week or so they’re usually gone, unlike heart attacks, which make permanent heart muscle changes.
If lost love is stressful, so is new love and other good stuff. When you’re going all googly and texting each other like crazy, you’ve got another big load of adrenaline in your system. But this time you also get endorphins and other “good stress” hormones that make you feel terrific, and the effects are not damaging.
So, the ancient Greeks were right, your heart can “break” like a cheap watch. Who’s most susceptible? Postmenopausal women, say Johns Hopkins. Nine out of ten subjects with a broken-heart diagnosis were women. It’s known that the hormones associated with falling in love produce a stronger addiction in women than in men. And when the endorphins are suddenly removed, women suffer a stronger negative reaction than men do.
So, there you go, Heather. Grandma Alice’s advice to keep you out of the ER with broken-heart syndrome? Stay calm. Stay alert. And remind yourself often that there are other fish in the sea. Or other dorks in biology class. Whatever your particular gene pool happens to be.
Matt: Do flies get sick? Considering the environment they live in, you’d think they’d be fighting off bugs all the time. — Bugged, La Mesa
Heck, yes, flies get sicker than dogs. But not very often. It’s only logical that any creature destined to spend its life wallowing in garbage, feces, and rotting flesh must be able to handle most of what comes its way. One slow afternoon, when nothing else was going on in the lab, I guess, some scientists decided to count the bacteria residing on a random sampling of garbage-dwelling flies. Average population was 3.683 million per fly. Of course, a bacterium or two will inevitably find its way inside the fly. As will viruses, protozoa, worms, and fungi. Flies not only stomp around in filth, they eat it, too. Flies are more revolting than you ever imagined.
Just as a nuclear-plant worker might get suited up to dig around in a pile of plutonium, our friend the fly is protected from its environment by its hard outer shell, its exoskeleton. The chitin-and-protein armor is tough, resistant to chemicals, and waterproof. That helps reduce the fly’s exposure to infectious microorganisms in the first place. But when they are infested, the bug’s digestive fluids destroy most of the invaders.
But from time to time, the fly is overwhelmed and heads into a swoon. Since flies aren’t particularly complex organisms, they usually go from a lively musca domestica to musca mortissimo in short order, with only a fleeting period spent as musca not-feeling-so-hot.