senior couple walking on the beachWhile heart disease poses a serious risk for all adults, older populations tend to be more vulnerable. Life-altering effects like stroke, heart attack or heart failure may permanently limit mobility, resulting in disability, lack of socialization and decreased quality of life. For yourself or a loved one, understand how older adults can reduce heart disease risks.

How Age Affects the Heart

Aging can harden your blood vessels from accumulated fat deposits and result in your heart no longer beating as fast. While more young adults today are living with heart disease symptoms related to obesity or diabetes, age-related changes elevate your risks after 65.

Age-specific risks include:

  • Arteriosclerosis, in response to hardened arteries
  • Plaque buildup inside your arteries, which also affects how well oxygen-rich blood flows through your body
  • High blood pressure, which can also contribute to atrial fibrillation
  • A weakened or damaged heart muscle, which also increases risks for heart failure
  • Arrhythmias
  • Stiffening heart valves, which can affect blood flow throughout your body
  • Enlarged heart chambers, which can slow down the rate of blood flow
  • Edema, or swelling around the feet and ankles
  • Conditions or procedures that indirectly affect your circulatory system, including chemotherapy, diabetes and thyroid disease

Additional risks include:

  • Family history
  • A lifetime of drinking alcohol
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure or diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • A diet high in salt and fats and low in fiber, fruits and vegetables

Individuals develop heart disease in response to atherosclerosis, a condition that reduces the flow of oxygen-rich blood. Patients are at higher risk for heart attacks or the effects may be more gradual, causing cardiac cells to die and the muscles to become weaker. You may already be experiencing heart disease if you notice:

  • Pain or numbness in the shoulders, neck, back, jaw or arms
  • Chest pains following physical activity
  • Shortness of breath while active or sedentary
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or confusion
  • Sweating
  • Random headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tiredness or fatigue without a clear source
  • Swelling around the feet or ankles

Lowering Heart Disease Risks for Older Adults

Research published in American Heart Association Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions found that when older adults walk 500 additional steps each day, they lower their heart disease risks by as much as 14 percent.

Using data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, researchers compared nearly 16,000 older adults averaging 78 years old, including those who took under 2,000 steps a day, with those who took 4,500 or more. About 450 participants wore an accelerometer to calculate their step count for at least three days. Researchers followed up three and a half years later to see who experienced an adverse cardiovascular event.

They found that under four percent of individuals who took 4,500 or more steps per day experienced a stroke, heart attack or developed heart disease. Incidents jumped to a rate of 11.5 percent for those who took fewer than 2,000 daily steps.

Reflecting these recent findings, older adults can lower their heart disease risks by:

  • Getting more exercise. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Exercise does not have to be intense; walking and gardening both get you moving!
  • Address damaging lifestyle habits. Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Women are advised to have just one alcoholic drink per day, while men should have no more than two.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet. Reduce your sugar, sodium, trans fat and saturated fat intake, as well as processed foods and red meats. Include more vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates in your diet.
  • Watch your weight. This factor goes hand-in-hand with diet and exercise. Keep your weight in the healthy range for your age and height.
  • Manage your health. If you have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, keep these conditions in check per your doctor’s orders. You may be advised to take medication and make lifestyle changes.
  • Address stress levels. Stress can affect you both mentally and physically, for instance through elevated blood pressure. Learn how to manage stress with lifestyle changes and increased physical activity.
  • Improve sleep hygiene. Sleeping less than seven hours a night increases your heart disease risks. For older adults, factors like hormonal changes or sleep apnea could be affecting your night’s rest. Establish a bedtime routine that involves putting aside electronic devices at least an hour before you go to sleep, limiting caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon and getting exercise during the day.

Are you concerned about your own or a loved one’s heart disease risk? Consult with the medical team at West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center today.