Adults 65 and older are at higher risk for a heart attack, stroke, heart failure or heart disease. These conditions can result in significant disability and limitations performing daily tasks. At this age, heart health involves making lifestyle changes to prevent disease, while monitoring key symptoms.
How the Heart Works
The heart muscle pumps blood throughout the body. It’s divided into two parts, the atrium on top and the ventricle below. The right side diverts blood to the lungs to help circulate oxygen, while the left allows the blood to leave the heart through the arteries. As this occurs, the heart’s parts all beat at a steady rate.
Heart Health Concerns for the Elderly
Aging can result in changes to this extremely precise system. You may find your heart doesn’t beat as fast during physical activity or you have fatty deposits in the arteries that increase risk for heart disease.
As you age, plaque causes the arteries to harden, resulting in arteriosclerosis – the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on your artery walls. Arteriosclerosis can further increase your risk for high blood pressure.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death among adults over 65. When plaque starts to accumulate in the coronary arteries, your risk for heart disease increases. Plaque reduces blood flow to your heart and weakens the muscle over time. If ignored, your risk for heart failure also increases.
Heart disease is a byproduct of atherosclerosis, which affects the coronary arteries. As plaque restricts the amount of oxygen-rich blood passing into your heart, a blockage can result. This may lead to severe chest pain or a heart attack, which causes the cells of the heart muscle to die. As a result, the heart becomes significantly weaker, decreasing its ability to pump blood through the rest of your body.
Before a heart attack occurs, certain symptoms point to the development of heart disease:
- Pain or numbness along your shoulders, arms, back, neck or jaw
- Shortness of breath, no matter if you’re active or resting
- Chest pain when you’re active
- Inability to perform daily activities
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Confusion or headaches
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained tiredness or fatigue
- Swelling around the ankles, feet, stomach, neck or legs
- Cold sweats
Other Age-Related Heart Changes
Older adults also have a greater risk for developing:
- Arrhythmia or a slower, irregular heartbeat. Patients may require a pacemaker.
- Stiff or thickened heart valves, which can leak, limit blood flow and cause fluid to accumulate in the body.
- Enlarged heart chambers. The heart takes longer to fill with and pump blood.
- Thickened heart walls, a side effect of high blood pressure that increases risk for atrial fibrillation.
- Edema or swelling around the ankles and feet.
To stay on top of heart health, older adults are recommended to:
- Regularly Seek Medical Attention. Get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked to detect high levels. Should your bloodwork show early signs, your doctor will recommend medication to help control the progression and address chest pains or heart disease.
- Exercise. To improve heart health, get at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. This can range from walking and bike riding to swimming.
- Quit Smoking. Along with age and lifestyle factors, smoking further damages the artery walls. Quitting can reduce risk of a stroke or heart disease.
- Make Dietary Changes. A heart-healthy diet is low in trans and saturated fats, salt and added sugar. Include more fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods and drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated decreases the strain your body places on your heart. Older adults should also limit daily alcohol consumption: No more than two drinks for men, one for women.
- Address Weight. Overall health has an impact on your heart’s performance. Maintain a healthy weight and keep conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure under control.
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