As you age, there are a variety of changes that your heart will undergo. Some of these changes can raise or lower your blood pressure, restrict blood flow, reduce blood volume and make your heart work harder on a regular basis. While you cannot stop yourself from aging, there are a variety of things that you can do to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and ensure that your heart remains healthy and strong.
Engaging in a routine exercise plan, eating healthy, avoiding tobacco and receiving all of your preventative tests from your doctor can all lead to a healthier heart.
It is also important to understand the treatment options available for cardiovascular disease so that you can be better prepared if you are ever diagnosed with any form of heart disease. To learn more about cardiovascular disease and how it affects senior citizens, review the information that has been provided in the sections below.
Understanding Your Heart
In order to fully understand cardiovascular disease and how your heart begins to change as you age, it is first important to understand how the heart functions in a healthy state. Your heart has two sides, each performing their own crucial functions for your body. The right side of your heart pumps blood to your lungs, allowing you to receive oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. The left side pumps that oxygen-rich blood through your arteries in order to provide that blood throughout the rest of your body.
Arteries grow smaller and smaller as they branch out and go into tissues. In tissue, they become tiny capillaries. A capillary provides the blood that has traveled through your body, giving oxygen and nutrients to tissues and receiving carbon dioxide and waste back from the tissues. That carbon dioxide and waste is then sent back to the heart through the arteries and the process begins anew.
How Aging Effects Your Heart, Blood Vessels and Blood
As you age, there are numerous changes to your heart, blood vessels and blood. The system within the heart that controls your heartbeat has pathways that can develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. Should this happen, your heart rate can be reduced. It is not uncommon for your heart to increase in size with age, especially in the left ventricle. However, as the heart walls thicken, the amount of blood that each chamber of the heart may hold decreases and thus the heart may fill more slowly.
Heart changes of any kind can cause an electrocardiogram (ECG) of a normal and healthier older person to be slightly different than a healthy, younger adult’s ECG. Abnormal rhythms of the heart are also somewhat common in senior citizens. However, they may also be caused by cardiovascular disease. There are other common changes to the heart that we begin to see as a senior citizen ages. The heart muscle cells are found to degenerate slightly and valves within the heart can become thick and stiff. These valves control the direction of blood flow, making heart murmurers more common among senior citizens.
Blood vessels begin to undergo changes of their own. There are receptors within your blood vessels referred to as baroreceptors. Baroreceptors monitor and regulate your blood pressure when you change positions or you are doing activities. As you age, those receptors become less sensitive. This may cause older people to develop orthostatic hypotension, which is a medical condition in which blood pressure falls when a person changes position. Capillary walls may also thicken, causing a slightly reduced exchange of nutrients, oxygen and waste. The main artery from the heart, called the aorta, can become thicker, stiffer and less flexible with age. This can cause your blood pressure to be higher and make your heart work harder with each beat, which can then lead to the thickening of the heart muscle.
Lastly, there are some changes to your blood as you age. Aging can cause a reduction in total body water, which means that blood volume decreases as there is less fluid in your bloodstream. The speed at which red blood cells are produced in the case of illness or stress is also reduced. This can cause slower responses to blood loss and anemia.
With all of these changes, older hearts may not be able to pump blood throughout the body as a younger heart. That can cause the heart to struggle or have to work much harder when you:
- Take certain medications.
- Undergo stress.
- Engage in physical exertion.
- Fall ill.
- Are injured.
Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
There are some heart disease risk factors that you do have control over such as lowering your cholesterol, staying fit and avoiding tobacco. It is recommended that you eat a heart-healthy diet and reduce the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat that you ingest. If you smoke, then consider quitting, or at the very least, reducing how much you smoke.
Monitor your weight and engage in a healthy exercise routine, as exercise may help you to prevent obesity, maintain your abilities and reduce stress. Studies show that people who exercise often have less body fat and smoke less than individuals who do not. Exercise also leads to fewer blood pressure problems, less disease and a healthier heart. Engage in regular check-ups with your heart for your doctor and keep up with other preventative screening that is recommended for your age.
Treatment Options for Cardiovascular Disease
Depending on the nature of your cardiovascular disease, your doctor may recommend a number of treatment options. Medications are common for high or low blood pressure, but what if your heart condition is more serious?
Stents are commonly recommended when arteries in your body have become too narrowed or have begun to build up plaque that blocks blood flow. A stent is a small, expandable tube that is inserted through a minor surgery. This can open narrowed arteries, reduce chest pain and help prevent or treat heart attacks. This procedure is performed under local anesthesia, mild sedation and involves no major incisions.
Procedures become more serious if an artery is completely blocked, as a heart-bypass surgery may be necessary. During a heart-bypass surgery, a surgeon would take blood vessels from another part of your body in order to go around the blocked artery. Heart bypass surgery is also referred to as coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) and is the most common type of open-heart surgery that is performed within the United States.
If your heart does not beat correctly and is beyond what can be fixed with medication, then a pacemaker may be an option. A pacemaker is a small device that is inserted into your body through a surgery. The pacemaker will then send an electrical impulse to your heart muscles and help your heart maintain a suitable heart rhythm and rate. This is a minor surgical procedure that is very common within the country.