February is American Heart Month, a time when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health. Heart disease is not a picky disease. In fact, it can affect anyone, anywhere. However, adults age 65 and older are much more likely than younger age groups to suffer a heart attack, to have a stroke, or to develop coronary heart disease and heart failure. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, especially that taking care of your health should be a top priority. So, let’s talk about your heart!
How Your Heart Changes With Age
Aging causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes increase a person’s risk of heart disease. As you get older, your heart cannot beat as fast as it once did during physical activity or times of stress. The heart also tends to enlarge with age, developing thicker walls and slightly larger chambers.
Over time, the heart muscle stiffens and the heart rate lowers. Because of this, older individuals may feel dizzy or faint when they stand up suddenly. These changes may also contribute to arrhythmias (rapid, slowed, or irregular heartbeats). The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute outlines the types, risk factors, and treatment options for arrhythmia.
Changes to Blood Pressure
The most common change that individuals experience with age is increased stiffness or hardening of the arteries. This is a cause of high blood pressure, or the force of your blood against the walls of the arteries. Hypertension – high blood pressure – means your heart has to work harder than normal to pump blood through the body.
With age, people become more sensitive to salt. Sodium intake that is too high can lead to hypertension, causing the blood vessels to stiffen and narrow and, therefore, causing blood flow to be disrupted. As you age, it is very important to regularly monitor your blood pressure, even if you are very healthy! If left untreated, hypertension may lead to kidney, brain, or vision issues, or a stroke. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers this guide to assess your blood pressure readings.
Understanding Heart Disease
There are many varieties of “heart disease.” One prominent type is coronary heart disease, which is caused by the buildup of fatty deposits (“plaques”) in the arteries. The early stages of heart disease may include very minor or no symptoms. Regular health screenings are vital to the prevention of heart conditions such as coronary heart disease.
Heart disease is a very prevalent cause of death in the United States. According to the CDC, one person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease. In Missouri from 2016-2018, the death rate from cardiovascular disease among those age 65 and older was higher than the national average. Compare rates of total cardiovascular disease death in your Missouri county with this CDC tool.
When plaque builds up over time, as is the case with coronary heart disease, there is less space for blood to flow and deliver oxygen and nutrients to the heart. When the heart is starved of oxygen, a heart attack might occur. Knowing the common warning signs of a heart attack is crucial to getting treatment quickly. The American Heart Association lists the following signs of a heart attack:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most individuals who experience heart attacks feel chest pain.
- Upper body discomfort. Arm or shoulder pain is commonly understood to be a sign of a heart attack. This pain may be on one or both sides. Individuals may also feel pain in the neck, back, or jaw.
- Symptoms in other body systems. Experiencing lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath may indicate a cardiac event.
If your loved one experiences a heart attack, it may feel overwhelming to care for their needs while taking care of yourself. Make sure to find some time for self-care. Your doctors and care providers are there to help you and your loved ones treat heart diseases and prevent future issues.
Prevention is Key
Remember: heart disease and cardiovascular events are treatable and preventable. Try these strategies from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to keep your heart in top shape:
- Be more physically active. Talk to your doctor about what types of physical activities work best for you. Physical activities do not have to be planned exercises! Start by doing things that you enjoy, such as walking, dancing, gardening, or even bowling.
- If you smoke, make it a priority to quit. Smoking causes many preventable diseases and deaths. Your doctor can help you develop a plan to successfully stop smoking.
- Follow a “heart-healthy” diet. Reduce “bad” fats like trans- and unsaturated fats, added sugar, and salt in your diet. Focus on fruits, vegetables, proteins, and mono- or polyunsaturated fats.
- Maintain positive mental health. Stress management is key to improving your total health!