The Ultimate Guide to Heart Disease for the Elderly

Introduction

Cardiovascular disease is the major cause of death and disability in the elderly. Atherosclerotic coronary heart disease, i.e. the hardening of arteries that carry blood to the heart, is the most prevalent problem, followed by hypertensive cardiovascular disease, which relates to high blood pressure. 

The heart is essentially a pump, whose function is to push your blood through the arteries and veins in your body. The heart faces certain difficulties on its own as we age, but one of the biggest culprits to heart disease isn’t actually your heart: it’s your arteries. The more congested and hardened your arteries are, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood through your body.

While certain factors like genetics, lifestyle choices, and stress all play a role in heart disease, the fact also remains that decreased performance of the human heart as it ages is a natural process that we all face. The good news is that there are well documented steps that you can take immediately to start improving your heart health without the need for any medication. Please be aware however that it is also important to see your doctor regularly just in case  medication is needed.

Natural Consequences of an Aging Heart

As we age, so does our heart. This has crucial consequences to our health and research shows a significant difference between various age groups in how aging affects the heart. For people aged 65 to 74, 40 percent of deaths are from heart disease, with it increasing to 60 percent for those over 80. From age 20 to 80, there is a 50 percent decline in the body's capacity for vigorous exercise. In your 20s, the maximum heart rate is between 180 and 200 beats per minute, but that rate decreases as you get older; average maximum heart rate for 80-year-olds is 145 per minute. A 20-year-old's heart can output three-and-a-half to four times the heart's resting capacity. An 80-year-old can output just two times resting capacity. This is why, as you age you should focus more on your heart health and remember to give yourself a break if you can no longer push yourself physically like you used to!

The heart naturally expands in size as we get older, too. This means that our 60-year-old hearts cannot contract or squeeze as tightly as they did when we were in our 20s. And there is also a loss of cells in the sinoatrial node, which is a specialized muscle fiber responsible for initiating the heartbeat. By 75 years of age, only ten percent of these cells that were present when a person was 20 years old remain. This is why the heart enlarges as we get older, because the remaining cells then need to expand to take on the job of the deceased cells. These changes occur in the absence of coronary artery disease; it is just a fact of life as we age.

Lifestyle Choices and Factors that Prematurely Age the Heart

Knowing that our hearts have to work harder as we get older to function shouldn’t be a reason to not care for our hearts as we age. There are behaviors and choices that are well-documented to age our heart prematurely and therefore can lead to an early — and preventable — death. The good news is that many of these choices are things that you have a reasonably large amount of control over.

  • The first is to ensure that you are getting enough sleep. That’s right, when you regularly sleep less than six hours a night, your risk of heart attack and stroke nearly doubles. Another study found that consistently sleep-deprived people were 12 percent more likely to die over the 25-year study period than those who got six to eight hours of sleep a night. 
  1. Ensure you are putting the right types of food and drink into your body. The human body evolved to survive on basically just food and water. In our modern times, we obviously ingest and imbibe much more than that, but choices here are important. Make sure you follow the Food and Drug Administration guidelines for a healthy diet and make sure to consult with your doctor. One of the best diets to follow is “The Mediterranean diet,” which is heavily based on fruits, vegetables, healthier fats like olive oils and nuts, and fish as a primary animal-based protein. Diets like this lead to lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, and cancer risk. Also be sure to reduce your salt intake, as sodium also increases blood pressure and dehydrates you.
  1. You should not be drinking more than suggested amounts of alcohol — which is one drink a day for women and two a day for men — as this causes heart disease, amongst other body damage. Increased alcohol consumption enlarges the heart prematurely. Quitting smoking entirely is also going to serve your heart (and just about everything else in your body) well; smoking tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the US ahead of heart disease and obesity issues.
  1. Regular use of over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, commonly known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), have been found to raise peoples’ risk of heart disease by 10 percent. Rather than habitually using these drugs for relief of common pain or soreness, try to use them for severe pain and only.
  1. Failing to manage your chronic stress puts your longevity at risk. Chronic stress hastens the cellular deterioration that leads to premature aging and a vast array of serious diseases. It increases blood pressure, and when consistently high, also causes hardening of the arteries. 

How to Help Your Heart Age Well and Stay Healthy

Remember that your heart is only as healthy as your arteries. Arteries take oxygen-rich blood away from the heart and deliver it to the body. As we age, our arteries become stiffer and less flexible. This causes our blood pressure to increase. The heart has to adjust to the increase in blood pressure by pumping harder and changing the timing of its valves. These adjustments leave the heart more vulnerable. To stay young at heart, protect your arteries by nixing the aforementioned bad habits, and building up on these better ones. 

  • Controlling your blood pressure 
  • Improving your cholesterol
  • Exercising
  • Relaxing
  • Learning heart-healthy nutrition for you specifically 

Sources:

1. (https://heart.bmj.com/content/84/5/560)

2. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3282833/ )

3. (https://www.cardiosmart.org/topics/older-adults-and-heart-disease)

4. (https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_319574.pdf)

5. (https://www.verywellhealth.com/understanding-heart-aging-and-reversing-heart-disease-2224231?print)


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