February is American Heart Month. Here’s a look at how the heart changes with age, signs of heart disease, and preventative measures to keep the heart healthy from the National Institute on Aging.
Elena’s Story. Elena keeps an eye on her husband Frank to make sure he is taking care of his heart. But, she was surprised at a recent medical appointment when Dr. Reyes asked about her own family’s history of heart disease. When Dr. Reyes heard that Elena’s mother had died at age 58 after a heart attack, she told Elena that she, too, should be following a heart-healthy lifestyle. She said older women, as well as older men, can have heart problems. So now, Elena and Frank are both taking steps toward heart health.
How Does the Heart Work? Anatomy of heart showing atria, ventricles, valves, vessels, and blood flowYour heart is a strong muscle that pumps blood to your body. A normal, healthy adult heart is about the size of your clenched fist. Just like an engine makes a car go, the heart keeps your body running. The heart has two sides, each with a top chamber (atrium) and a bottom chamber (ventricle). The right side pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The left side receives blood rich with oxygen from the lungs and pumps it through arteries throughout the body. An electrical system in the heart controls the heart rate (heartbeat or pulse) and coordinates the contraction of the heart’s top and bottom chambers.
How Your Heart Changes with Age. People age 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer a heart attack, to have a stroke, or to develop coronary heart disease (commonly called heart disease) and heart failure. Heart disease is also a major cause of disability, limiting the activity and eroding the quality of life of millions of older people.
Aging can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels. For example, as you get older, your heart can’t beat as fast during physical activity or times of stress as it did when you were younger. However, the number of heartbeats per minute (heart rate) at rest does not change significantly with normal aging.
Changes that happen with age may increase a person’s risk of heart disease. A major cause of heart disease is the buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of arteries over many years. The good news is there are things you can do to delay, lower, or possibly avoid or reverse your risk.
The most common aging change is increased stiffness of the large arteries, called arteriosclerosis (ahr-teer-ee-o-skluh-roh-sis), or hardening of the arteries. This causes high blood pressure, or hypertension, which becomes more common as we age.
High blood pressure and other risk factors, including advancing age, increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis (ath-uh-roh-skluh-roh-sis). Because there are several modifiable risk factors for atherosclerosis, it is not necessarily a normal part of aging. Plaque builds up inside the walls of your arteries and, over time, hardens and narrows your arteries, which limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body. Oxygen and blood nutrients are supplied to the heart muscle through the coronary arteries. Heart disease develops when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, reducing blood flow to your heart muscle. Over time, the heart muscle can become weakened and/or damaged, resulting in heart failure. Heart damage can be caused by heart attacks, long-standing hypertension and diabetes, and chronic heavy alcohol use.
LEARN MORE from this NIH article about checking your blood pressdues, other changes to your heart caused by age, heart disease and its signs, medical tests, what you can do to prevent heart disease and more.