Have you ever wondered why some older people can run marathons, while others have a hard time getting up out of a chair? Much of this inconsistency has to do with the way the heart ages. Many of the changes that commonly occur within the heart have as much to do with lifestyle as with age. This means that by eating more healthfully and exercising more, you can help keep your heart healthy as you age.
As we age, certain changes in the heart are inevitable. Even in the absence of disease, the walls of the heart thicken, heart rate slows, maximum heart rate declines, and the heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it once did.
With each passing decade, our hearts relax more slowly than when we were young, causing the heart to fill with blood more slowly, pump more slowly at rest, and not keep pace as well with demand when we exercise. These adjustments make it difficult for the heart to pump as efficiently as it once did.
As people grow older, their arteries—which carry blood away from the heart—grow stiffer, and the walls get thicker. This process, part of atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty deposits on the inside of the arteries) significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The major causes of atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and cigarette smoking.
Regular aerobic exercise can reduce age-related stiffening of the arteries. People who are more physically fit have less stiff, more compliant arteries.
Diets high in saturated fats and trans fats have been shown to raise LDL ("bad cholesterol") cholesterol levels. High LDL cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis, which increases the risk for stroke and heart disease. By replacing saturated and trans fats like red meat and margarine with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like fish and olive oil (which raise healthy HDL ["good" cholesterol] cholesterol), you can decrease the chance of having fatty deposits in your arteries.
It may not be age, but age-associated changes, that make older people at higher risk for heart problems. Studies are trying to determine what we should eat and how much exercise we should get to prevent some of these age-associated changes. Further research is looking into how drugs and gene therapies can prevent the decline of heart health with age.
Making certain lifestyle changes is one of the safest, most effective ways to promote heart health. To help keep your heart healthy as you grow older, adopt the following lifestyle changes:
As you get older, it is important to visit your physician regularly. By monitoring cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, you can make lifestyle changes and get access to medications before you get heart disease or have a stroke.
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada
Aging hearts and arteries. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/aging-hearts-and-arteries. Updated October 17, 2013. Accessed. March 7, 2014.
Atherosclerosis. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/WhyCholesterolMatters/Atherosclerosis_UCM_305564_Article.jsp. Updated December 18, 2013. Accessed March 7, 2014.
Coronary artery disease (CAD). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 2, 2014. Accessed March 7, 2014.
Fats and cholesterol. Harvard School of Public Health. Available at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats.html. Accessed March 7, 2014.
Last reviewed March 2014 by Michael Woods, MD