Heart Health for Seniors
The heart is a muscle that evolves and changes in size, shape, and function over time.
As we move into middle age and beyond, we become increasingly vulnerable to health risks. That's why, now more than ever, it's important to understand the risks of heart disease and take the necessary steps to protect your heart. In this article, we’ll explore why such measures are so important after turning fifty, as well as how you can begin taking preventive actions now.
How Your Heart Changes With Age
It’s important to think about your heart health well before you reach your 70s or 80s. As we get older, our cardiovascular system experiences normal, age-related changes such as:
Heart rate slows down:
The heartbeat is controlled by a natural pacemaker system (the sinoatrial or SA node). Some of the pathways in this system may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits over time. Due to these changes, the heart rate may slow down slightly.
Heart size increases:
With a slightly larger heart and thicker heart walls, less blood fills the chamber and the heart fills more slowly. This results in less oxygen-rich blood reaching your cells and tissues.
Arteries may become stiff and lack elasticity:
As a result of changes in the connective tissue of the blood vessel wall, seniors tend to experience moderate increases in blood pressure. The main artery from the heart (aorta) becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. As a result, blood pressure rises and the heart has to work harder, resulting in the thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy).
Red blood cell production decreases:
Red blood cells are produced at a slower rate during stress or illness, which results in a slower response to blood loss. Although the majority of white blood cell levels remain the same, certain WBCs that play an important role in immunity (neutrophils), also decrease in number and in their ability to fight off bacteria. This can lower the body's ability to resist infection.
When all of the above factors make the heart work harder, an older heart may not be able to pump blood as efficiently.
- Angina (chest pain caused by a temporary reduction in blood flow to the heart)
- Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
- Anemia may be caused by malnutrition, chronic infections, gastrointestinal blood loss, or as a complication of other diseases or medications.
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs when fat deposits build up inside the blood vessels, narrowing and sometimes blocking them entirely.
- High blood pressure
Statistics on Cardiovascular Disease in Older Adults
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in older adults.
With age, the risk of heart failure increases, as well as the possibility of having a heart attack or stroke. According to The American Heart Association, the incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in US men and women occurs at a rate of ~40% between the ages of 40-59 and 75% between ages 60-79. By age 80, those numbers grow to 86%.
What is Cardiovascular Disease?
The cardiovascular system is responsible for circulating blood around the body. It consists of the heart, which pumps blood, and the blood vessels, which carry blood to and from the heart.
In a healthy cardiovascular system, the right side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs, allowing for oxygen to be taken in and carbon dioxide released. The left side then circulates this oxygen-rich blood around the body via arteries. Those arteries flow out of the heart, branching out into the tissues and getting smaller until they become tiny capillaries. Capillaries distribute nutrients and oxygen to the tissues and receive carbon dioxide back from them. That carbon dioxide is then transported through larger veins, which return blood to the heart.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term that describes a disease of the heart or blood vessels. This includes heart disease, stroke, and other related conditions.
Heart disease refers to various conditions that affect the heart, such as coronary heart disease, arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, and valve problems.
One of the major contributors to heart disease is atherosclerosis. This occurs when fatty deposits or plaques build up in the coronary arteries surrounding the heart, preventing oxygen and nutrients from reaching the heart muscles. Heart cells can weaken and even die (heart attack) when these deposits restrict blood flow, resulting in a diminished ability for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.
Heart disease is the most common type of CVD and the leading cause of death in the United States - so it’s important for seniors to be aware of the risks and how to prevent it. About 1 in 6 people in the United States who are aged 65 or older have some form of heart disease.
Let’s highlight a few of the most common types:
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD):
In men and women, the risk of coronary heart disease increases markedly with age. Also called coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease, this condition occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become narrowed or blocked due to plaque buildup. This can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, and an increased risk of a heart attack.
Congestive Heart Failure:
Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. This can be due to a variety of conditions, such as coronary artery disease, valve problems, or viral infections. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling in the legs and feet.
An arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, is a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. Your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly, or with an irregular rhythm. Some arrhythmias are harmless, while others can be life-threatening. Symptoms include palpitations, lightheadedness, and fainting.
Valvular Heart Disease:
Valvular heart disease occurs when one or more of the valves in your heart are damaged or diseased. This can cause blood to leak back into your heart, which can lead to shortness of breath and fatigue.
Keep in mind: All heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, but not all cardiovascular diseases are classified as heart diseases.
Treating heart disease depends on the type and severity of the condition. In most cases, lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and reducing stress can help reduce symptoms and improve overall quality of life. Other treatments may involve medications or surgery. To learn more, you may be interested in reading “Healthy-Healthy Tips for Seniors”.
Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Seniors
There are some key warning signs and symptoms to be aware of that can indicate you’re at risk for heart disease. The most common is chest pain or discomfort, which can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of the chest. It may also occur in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back.
While some people experience no symptoms at all, others may notice one or more of the following:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen
- Irregular heartbeat
Am I At Risk? Common Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Seniors
One of the major risk factors is age itself. As we age, our arteries become narrower and less flexible, which can lead to a buildup of plaque.
“Patients who suffer from metabolic syndrome and inflammatory conditions like obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, which cause inflammation and dysfunction have more disastrous outcomes”, says Dr. Carolyn Dean, a medical doctor, naturopath, and author of the bestseller ‘The Magnesium Miracle’.
Anyone can get heart disease, but factors that may place you at a higher risk include:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Magnesium and other nutrient deficiencies
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Unhealthy weight
- Yeast overgrowth
- Chronic stress
- Unhealthy diet
Your age and family history also affect your risk for heart disease. Your risk is higher if:
- You’re a woman over age 55
- You’re a man over age 45
If you have any of these risk factors, it's important to talk to your doctor about what steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
How Do I Know If My Heart Is Healthy? Levels to Watch
There are a few different levels that are important to monitor when it comes to your heart health.
Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. This is one of the most common risk factors for heart disease. If your blood pressure is high, it puts extra strain on your heart and arteries, which can damage them over time.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood. When you have high cholesterol, it means there is more low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your blood. LDL can build up in your arteries and form plaque, which narrows them and makes it harder for blood to flow through. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke, so it’s important to monitor. Your doctor can perform a simple blood test to check your cholesterol levels.
Excess fat in the body can lead to high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, all of which contribute to heart problems. Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for preventing the onset of serious heart-related health issues.
Blood sugar level, or glucose level, is the amount of sugar in your blood. Sugar is an important source of energy for the body, and your blood sugar level can fluctuate based on what you eat and how active you are. However, high levels overtime can damage your arteries and lead to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Prevention & Monitoring: Questions to Ask Your Doctor
As you age, it’s important to be aware of your heart health and to take steps to prevent heart disease. Here are some questions you should ask at your next doctor’s visit about your heart health:
What is my blood pressure level?
What is my blood sugar level? Am I at risk for diabetes?
What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.) Make sure your doctor has checked a fasting blood sample to determine your cholesterol levels.
What is my current risk for heart disease? What can I do to reduce my risk of developing it?
Do I need to lose weight for my health?
What should I do if I think I’m having a heart attack?
What other screening tests do I need to tell me if I'm at risk for heart disease, and how to lower my risk?
Medical Tests for Heart Disease
Your physician will take a reading of your blood pressure, and perform a fasting blood test to assess your cholesterol. They may suggest an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), to take a look at the electrical activity within your heart, along with a blood test to reveal if inflammation is present in the body.
To identify any enlargement of the heart or fluid in the lungs, an analysis with a chest x-ray is necessary as these can be telltale signs of heart failure. If further observation of the heart or valves is required, then the cardiologist may recommend an echocardiogram – a painless test that uses sound waves to create images of your heart’s movement.
It's all too easy to ignore the fact that your cardiovascular system, and with it your heart, is vulnerable to changes as you get older. The age of 50 and beyond is an important time to maintain a lifestyle that protects your heart. That's why, even if you're over the age of 50, it's still important to begin making healthy lifestyle choices and get regular check-ups. Doing so can help you avoid serious conditions later on in life.
Taking proactive steps to nourish heart health can mean the difference between a long life full of joy or one stuck in a cycle of sickness. If you're wondering where to start, check out our deep dive into Heart Healthy Tips.