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How Does Aspirin Help During a Heart Attack?

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The heart is the most important muscle in the body, so it seems like something of a marketing ploy by the folks at Bayer to suggest that something so simple as a humble aspirin tablet can be of any use when this life-sustaining organ goes into epic fail mode. But it’s true: next to calling 911 immediately, taking an aspirin is one of your best bets when it comes to surviving a cardiac event. As Ben Affleck once said in a shampoo commercial, here comes the science.

We all have platelets in our blood – specialized disc-shaped cells that cling together to form a clot. Blood clots serve an important purpose; when you cut yourself shaving or smack your nose against someone’s fist, the body detects a disruption in the lining of a blood vessel and sends platelets scrambling to the injured area to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes, though, platelets get confused and rush to block an uninjured vessel. In the case of a heart attack, it’s usually a plaque (a cholesterol-rich build-up of gunk) that was attached to the wall of a vessel and suddenly ruptured. Even though there is no bleeding taking place, the rupture attracts the platelets and they build their customary blood-stopping barrier. The clot ends up blocking a healthy vein and deprives the heart of necessary oxygen-rich blood and causes a portion of the muscle to die. End result: heart attack.

Making Platelets Less Sticky

Among aspirin’s other properties, such as fever and pain reduction, it also has an inhibitory effect on platelets in the blood. It somehow makes the platelets less “sticky” and less likely to clump together. And less is better in this case - too much aspirin can cause stomach upset and uncontrollable bleeding, which is why one baby aspirin (81 mg) per day has been determined to be the optimal dosage to keep the blood flowing smoothly without adverse side effects.

Of course, everyone should check with a physician before beginning a daily aspirin regimen. However, if you or a loved one is showing symptoms of a heart attack, do not hesitate to administer a non-coated regular-strength aspirin tablet with a glass of water. Studies have shown that the pill works faster (eight minutes versus up to 20 minutes) if the patient chews it before swallowing.

Rosie O’Donnell credits aspirin with saving her life during her recent cardiac event. Interestingly enough, my Dad had a heart attack in 1990 and his symptoms were almost identical to Rosie’s. O’Donnell had struggled to assist an overweight woman out of her car one afternoon and then noticed aching in her arms and a slight pain in her chest later in the day. My Dad had aching in his arms one evening and a slight tightness in his chest, but charged the symptoms off to having been repairing the doorbell earlier and having held his arms overhead for so long. In both cases there was no “elephant on the chest” sensation or major pain in the left arm only. And Dad’s doctor later credited his daily baby aspirin regimen with saving his life, since once he recovered sufficiently for surgery he required a quintuple bypass.

Moral of the story: if you’re over 35, ask your doctor about aspirin. If you suddenly feel any sort of unusual pain or discomfort in your arms, chest and/or lower jaw do not hesitate to get thee to the emergency room ASAP.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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