Aging and Keeping a Healthy Heart: Facts and Tips
Keeping the Heart Healthy
Maintaining a healthy heart is important throughout our lives but is especially valuable as we age. Some changes in the cardiovascular system seem to be inevitable as we grow older, at least according to the current state of our medical knowledge, but many are definitely not inevitable. There are many steps that we can follow to keep our heart and circulatory system healthy. We'll probably have to pay extra attention to these steps as the years pass, but doing so will greatly increase our chance of a long and healthy life.
The key to keeping a heart in good condition is to follow a healthy lifestyle. This lifestyle should include a nutritious and healthy diet. Regular, moderate exercise helps to maintain a suitable weight and reduce stress, two factors which are very beneficial for heart health. Smoking and excessive alcohol intake should be avoided.
A healthy lifestyle does more than keep the heart healthy directly; it also reduces the risk of other diseases that may harm the heart indirectly, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which tend to be more common in the older population.
Passage of Blood Through the Heart
Since keeping our heart healthy is so important, it's helpful to learn a little about the heart's structure and how it works. This can help us appreciate the problems that may appear in different parts of the heart.
The heart is a muscular pump that contains four chambers. The two smaller chambers at the top are the atria and the two bigger chambers at the bottom are the ventricles. Blood passes through the chambers in the following manner.
- The right atrium receives deoxygenated blood from the body and then contracts to send this blood into the right ventricle.
- The right ventricle contracts to send the blood to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries, where the blood picks up oxygen.
- The oxygenated blood returns to the left atrium through the pulmonary veins.
- The left atrium contracts to send the blood to the left ventricle.
- The left ventricle contracts to send the blood into the aorta, the largest artery in the body.
- The aorta sends the oxygenated blood on its journey around the body.
- Both atria contract at the same time, forming the first part of the heart beat.
- The contraction of the atria is followed by both ventricles contracting at the same time, which forms the second part of the heart beat.
The heart is labelled from its owner's point of view, which is why "right" and "left" seem to reversed in the diagram above.
Animation of the Heartbeat
Changes as We Age
Researchers have found that there are often changes in the heart as we age. These changes make the heartbeat less efficient, so it's very important that our lifestyle doesn't accelerate the changes or make them more severe than they would normally be.
A valve is located between the atrium and ventricle on each side of the heart. The valves close once the atria have sent their blood into the ventricles, preventing blood from flowing back into the atria when the ventricles contract. As we age, the valves become thicker and stiffer and may not be able to completely stop blood from flowing the wrong way as the ventricles contract.
Fibrosis may also occur in an aging heart. This is the increased formation of fibrous connective tissue in the heart muscle. The fibrous tissue is stiffer than the surrounding muscle and interferes with the heart beat, making it less effective.
The sinoatrial node (or SA node) is an area in the heart muscle that triggers the heart beat. It's also known as the pacemaker of the heart. Fibrous tissue in the SA node may cause the heart to beat slower.
Another possible change during aging is a slight enlargement of the heart, especially the left ventricle. This is the hardest-working of the four chambers. The heart wall may become thicker too. This means that the heart can't hold as much blood as it did when the person was younger, even if its overall size is larger than the heart of a younger person.
In the video below a doctor describes heart changes that tend to occur as we age. They may sound depressing, but you'll see that at the end of the video the doctor lists ways in which we can greatly reduce the chance of the changes taking place in our bodies or of the changes affecting our health.
Aging and Heart Disease
There are arterial changes as well as heart changes in older people. Arteries transport blood away from the heart towards the body's organs and tissues. The walls of the arteries—including the aorta—become stiffer and less elastic with age. This means that the heart has to pump harder in order to push the blood through the arteries and that blood pressure goes up.
Diet for a Healthy Heart
A healthy diet for the heart contains vegetables, fruits, legumes or pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), herbs, spices, whole grains, nuts and seeds in moderation, and fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon and sardines). It may also include low-fat, low-salt dairy and lean meat, if desired, as well as healthy beverages such as water, tea, and cocoa. Making sure that the diet is low in saturated fat, salt, and added sugar is important.
A diet high in plant foods is rich in phytonutrients, chemicals which aren't necessary to keep us alive but are thought to have important health benefits. Some possible benefits of phytonutrients, which are also called phytochemicals, include reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and some types of cancer.
Certain foods from plants have been found to have specific benefits for the cardiovascular system. For example, oatmeal and barley are rich in soluble fiber. Many fruits contain this type of fiber, too. Soluble fiber lowers LDL cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol that can lead to blocked arteries, heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral artery disease when it's present in excess.
Another example of a very useful food from plants is cocoa, which may be especially helpful for maintaining a normal blood pressure and keeping the blood vessels healthy. The least processed forms of cocoa are the most beneficial. Spices also have health benefits. They can be a good substitute for salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure when eaten in excess.
If oils are used, the best kinds for heart health are those that are high in monounsaturated fatty acids, such as olive oil. Like nuts and seeds, olive oil is very healthy but should be eaten in moderation. Monounsaturated fatty acids lower the LDL cholesterol level in the blood.
Omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish are also beneficial, since they reduce the level of triglyerides (fats) in the blood. Triglycerides increase the risk of heart disease and strokes when they are too concentrated. They tend to rise when we eat too many simple sugars, especially fructose.
How to Keep Your Heart Healthy
Cholesterol and the Circulatory System
Cholesterol is an essential chemical in the body and is needed for the normal functioning of cells, but too much is dangerous. It comes in several different varieties, depending on the type of lipoprotein that carries it through the bloodstream.
LDL cholesterol contains cholesterol attached to low density lipoprotein. It carries cholesterol from the liver (where the cholesterol is made) to the cells. HDL cholesterol contains cholesterol attached to high density lipoprotein. It transports cholesterol away from the cells to the liver, where the cholesterol is broken down.
Excess LDL cholesterol accumulates in fatty deposits called plaque which form in the lining of the arteries. The lining bulges as the plaque builds up, narrowing the channel for blood flow. Eventually the plaque hardens and the artery becomes stiff. This process is known as atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. It's more common in older people but it occurs in younger people too, especially if they have an unhealthy lifestyle.
Blood clots may form when blood flows over an area with plaque. These clots may block the artery or may be transported by the blood to other arteries. Bits of plaque can break off and block arteries, too.
HDL is beneficial because it can pick up cholesterol from the arterial lining and take it to the liver for breakdown. Health experts say our goal should be to have a high HDL cholesterol to LDL cholesterol ratio in our blood.
What Is Cholesterol?
Diseases Caused by Blocked Blood Vessels
The coronary arteries supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle. Blockage of the coronary arteries can result in coronary heart disease (CHD), which may lead to heart arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), a heart attack, or heart failure. If blood vessels going to the brain are blocked, a stroke may result. Blocked blood vessels in the limbs may cause peripheral artery disease (PAD or P.A.D.), which is sometimes called peripheral vascular disease. This disease increases the risk of heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke.
Avoid Unhealthy Fats
Fat choice is very important with respect to heart health. Foods contain four types of fats, or triglycerides: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans fats. The different types of fats have different effects on our blood cholesterol level.
In general, nutritionists say that monounsaturated fats are very good for heart health, polyunsaturated fats are good (but omega-3 fats, which are a type of polyunsaturated fat, are considered to be very good for us), saturated fats are bad, and artificial trans fats are very bad.
Nutritionists also say that fat should be kept at a moderate level in the diet and should consist mainly of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats should be limited and artificial trans fats should be very strictly limited or eliminated from the diet.
Saturated fats are bad because they stimulate the build up of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. Artificial trans fats are even worse for us than saturated fats because they not only raise LDL cholesterol but also lower HDL cholesterol.
Trans fats occur naturally in foods from animals but are also made artificially when liquid vegetable oils are converted into solid fats by food processing companies. The process is carried out by adding hydrogen gas to a vegetable oil. The resulting solid is said to be partially hydrogenated and contains a high concentration of trans fats. It's uncertain whether natural trans fats are as dangerous for us as artificial ones.
Recently, there have been claims that saturated fats are not as bad for us as has been thought. Major health organizations like the American Heart Association still recommend that we limit saturated fats in our diet, however.
Cholesterol in Food
Cholesterol in food may or may not be a problem for our health. Researchers have found that for most of us eating foods that are high in cholesterol, such as eggs, doesn't cause the blood cholesterol level to rise. Cholesterol is made by the liver. it seems that if we eat cholesterol the liver makes less to compensate for the dietary intake. This is good news in relation to eggs, because they are a very nutritious food and are low in saturated fat.
In a few people, however, eating high cholesterol foods does increase the cholesterol level in their blood. People with heart or circulatory problems should seek their doctor's advice about the advisability of including eggs or other high cholesterol foods such as shrimp and liver in their diet.
Exercise and Cardiovascular Health
Exercise for a Healthy Heart
Regular aerobic exercise (exercise that moderately increases the heart rate and breathing rate) benefits the heart in several ways. It makes the heart muscle stronger, which enables the heart to work more efficiently; it improves the condition of the blood vessels; and it lowers high blood pressure. It also increases the HDL cholesterol level in the bloodstream. In addition, exercise helps people lose weight if they need to, which is another factor that raises the concentration of HDL cholesterol. Yet another advantage of regular exercise with respect to keeping the heart healthy is that it reduces stress.
If you have serious health problems, are very overweight, or are an older person, seek your doctor's advice before starting an exercise program. Remember too that any form of exercise—even if it's gentle and non-aerobic—is better for health than no exercise.
Effects of Smoking and Stress
Smoking should definitely be avoided by anyone who wants to maintain heart health. It's classified as a "major risk factor for heart disease". Smoking can stimulate the formation of plaque and the development of atherosclerosis, as well as all the cardiovascular problems that may result from atherosclerosis. Even second-hand smoke—smoke that we inhale from an environment in which someone else is smoking—can cause these problems. In addition, smoking contributes to heart disease by lowering HDL cholesterol.
Continued stress increases the risk of a heart attack, although some recent research suggests that this is a relatively small risk. A survey of 200,000 people in Europe suggested that about 3.4% of heart attacks were related to job stress, 12% were related to lack of exercise, and 36% were related to smoking.
We may have a battle to fight as aging changes happen in our cardiovascular system, but it's definitely possible to win this battle. A commitment to a healthy diet and regular exercise, avoidance of harmful activities such as smoking, and the use of stress management techniques will all be a huge help in maintaining heart health as we age.
It's important to check blood pressure regularly, since this does tend to rise as we get older and is a risk factor for heart disease. We need to get regular medical checkups, too. These checkups will show us whether we're successfully maintaining cardiovascular health. They may indicate that we need to make adjustments or additions to our program for staying healthy. It's good to monitor conditions regularly so that any necessary changes can be made to maintain our health and enjoyment of life.
A Review Quiz About the Heart and Blood Vesselsview quiz statistics
Aging and the cardiovascular system from the U.S. National Library of Medicine
The truth about fats from Harvard Health Publishing
An analysis of saturated fats and heart disease from the NHS (National Health Service)
Effect of smoking on the heart and blood vessels from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
Stress and heart attacks from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton