To most people, giraffes are merely adorable, long-necked animals that rank near the top of a zoo visit or a photo-safari bucket list. But to a cardiovascular physiologist, there’s even more to love. Giraffes, it turns out, have solved a problem that kills millions of people every year: high blood pressure. Their solutions, only partly understood by scientists so far, involve pressurized organs, altered heart rhythms, blood storage — and the biological equivalent of support stockings.
Giraffes have sky-high blood pressure because of their sky-high heads that, in adults, rise about six meters above the ground — a long, long way for a heart to pump blood against gravity. To have a blood pressure of 110/70 at the brain — about normal for a large mammal — giraffes need a blood pressure at the heart of about 220/180. It doesn’t faze the giraffes, but a pressure like that would cause all sorts of problems for people, from heart failure to kidney failure to swollen ankles and legs.
In people, chronic high blood pressure causes a thickening of the heart muscles. The left ventricle of the heart becomes stiffer and less able to fill again after each stroke, leading to a disease known as diastolic heart failure, characterized by fatigue, shortness of breath and reduced ability to exercise.