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Aging and Keeping a Healthy Heart: Facts and Suggestions

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with a first-class honors degree in biology. She writes about the scientific basis of disease.

Eating a healthy diet can help to keep our heart healthy as we age.

Eating a healthy diet can help to keep our heart healthy as we age.

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 that 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.

An Important Note

The information in this article is given for general interest. The suggested methods for keeping a heart in good condition are recommended by health professionals. Anyone with questions or concerns about keeping their own heart or circulatory system healthy should consult a doctor, however.

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 be reversed in the illustration above.

Structural 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.

Arterial Changes in Older People

There are often 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—often 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 tends to increase.

Fruits contain phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, which help to keep the heart healthy.

Fruits contain phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, which help to keep the heart healthy.

Diet for a Healthy Heart

According to many researchers, 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. These chemicals 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 an excessive amount.

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.

Salmon contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. This is salmon sashimi, which is made from raw fish.

Salmon contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. This is salmon sashimi, which is made from raw fish.

Healthy Oils in the Diet

If oils are used, the best kinds for heart health are said to be 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.

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 that 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 as well, 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.

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.

A green smoothie is a good way to eat extra vegetables, but the inclusion of too many fruits in the smoothie produces a high fructose content.

A green smoothie is a good way to eat extra vegetables, but the inclusion of too many fruits in the smoothie produces a high fructose content.

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 said to be 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, though they don't say that we should completely avoid them.

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.

Berries can be part of a healthy diet.

Berries can be part of a healthy diet.

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. Once your doctor agrees that you should start exercising, remember to begin gently and gradually increase the intensity and duration of the exercise over time (as long as this increase is suitable for your state of health). Remember 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. According to the National Institutes of 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.

Researchers have discovered that continuous stress can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. The way in which we deal with the stress could either increase or reduce the risk. If we react to stressful periods by activities such as overeating or smoking, we could make the situation worse. On the other hand, if we exercise to relieve stress, perform activities that relax us, or share our problems with a friend or another helpful person, stress and an increased risk of heart disease could be reduced or even eliminated.

Spices such as cinnamon are healthy and delicious additions to foods.

Spices such as cinnamon are healthy and delicious additions to foods.

Staying Healthy

We may have a battle to fight as aging causes changes 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 likely 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.

Fresh fruit for a healthy heart

Fresh fruit for a healthy heart

A Review Quiz About the Heart and Blood Vessels

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which chamber of the heart receives oxygenated blood from the lungs?
    • Left atrium
    • Left ventricle
    • Right ventricle
    • Right atrium
  2. Which chamber of the heart sends deoxygenated blood to the lungs?
    • Left atrium
    • Left ventricle
    • Right ventricle
    • Right atrium
  3. What is the name of the largest artery in the body?
    • Atrium
    • Capillary
    • Aorta
    • Coronary artery
  4. What is the name of the pacemaker of the heart?
    • The SA valve
    • The SA artery
    • The SA vein
    • The SA node
  5. The left atrium contracts before the right atrium.
    • True
    • False
  6. The left ventricle is the hardest working chamber of the heart.
    • True
    • False
  7. Arteries transport blood from the body to the heart.
    • True
    • False
  8. Which type of cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in arteries when too much is present?
    • HDL cholesterol
    • LDL cholesterol
  9. What is the name of the blood vessels that travel through the heart muscle?
    • Coronary arteries
    • Cardiac arteries
    • Aorta
    • Peripheral arteries
  10. The pulmonary veins contain deoxygenated blood.
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. Left atrium
  2. Right ventricle
  3. Aorta
  4. The SA node
  5. False
  6. True
  7. False
  8. LDL cholesterol
  9. Coronary arteries
  10. False


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 21, 2017:

Thank you, Anita. I'm glad you found the article useful.

Anita Hasch from Port Elizabeth on January 21, 2017:

Such an interesting and informative hub, thank you.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 01, 2015:

Anytime Alicia. I'm paying it forward. :-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 01, 2015:

Thank you very much, Kristen. I appreciate all your support.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 01, 2015:

Great hub as always, Alicia, on how to have a healthy heart in so many ways. Voted up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2012:

Thanks for adding this good information, Casimiro. I always make sure that the salmon that I buy is wild, for the reason that you describe!

Casimiro on October 09, 2012:

Just one comment regarding salmon as an Omega-3 source. That is only true for wild salmon. Farm-raised salmon (which is mostly what you get in stores) is not fed a diet rich in Omega-3, thus they are not a good source of that heart healthy ingredient. Same goes for fish oil capsules, they need to come from wild salmon.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 25, 2012:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, HouseBuyersUS. It's nice to meet you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 24, 2012:

Thanks for the vote and the share, Peggy! Yes, a long and healthy life would be wonderful, and is certainly worth working for.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 24, 2012:

We obviously can't live forever, but knowing about these healthy lifestyle habits can make our lives...for however long we live...more enjoyable if we are healthy. Good hub! Up votes and sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 24, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, drbj. I appreciate your visit!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 24, 2012:

This is very necessary information to keep our hearts healthy, Alicia, presented in an interesting manner. You reminded me of what is necessary and what is often forgotten pertaining to the health of our heart. Excellent videos, too. A great big Up, m'dear.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2012:

Hi, JCielo. Thanks for the comment and the votes. Yes, trans fats are horrible substances in relation to our health. It's really important to avoid them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2012:

Thank you for commenting and for the votes, ignugent17. Yes, it is very important to keep the heart healthy, especially as we grow older!

JCielo from England on September 23, 2012:

Well researched and laid out. I particularly appreciate you highlighting artificial trans fat in our diet as being extremely bad for the heart. Voted up and more.

ignugent17 on September 23, 2012:


This is very helpful. It is always nice to be reminded that we need to be healthy all the time. Eat good food and exercise. Having a healthy heart is really important.

Voted up and more! :-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2012:

Thank you, Tom! I appreciate your comment and the share, as well as the votes.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on September 23, 2012:

Hi my friend, great well written and researched hub full with valuable information and advice that everyone should read. Well Done !

Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thank you, teaches. Yes, according to most nutritionists and nutrition researchers, it is very important to limit saturated fats in the diet. We can't eliminate them completely - and some people think that we shouldn't try to eliminate them, unlike the case with artificial trans fats - since we do need some fat in our diet, and foods that contain fat contain a mixture of fat types. What we do need to do, according to most experts, is to choose foods that contain a much higher proportion of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats.

Dianna Mendez on September 22, 2012:

I am so glad I read through you post today. You have reminded me of the dangers of saturated fats -- it is a killer! Your suggestions are simple enough for anyone to follow, let's hope that many will adhere to these rules. Well done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thank you for the wonderful comment and for all the votes, Bobbi! I appreciate the tweet and the email to your cousin, too. I'm sorry that you lost your mother due to heart problems. It certainly makes us realize the importance of trying to stay healthy when a loved one dies of an illness.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thank you, Judi. Life does sometimes get in the way of our good intentions! As long as we get back on track soon, though, I don't expect any harm will be done!

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on September 22, 2012:


I can tell you are a great researcher and I for one appreciate your hard work. My mother died of heart problems and because of this I have always tried to live a healthy life.

This will help so many who reads this and I thank you for it. I will email my cousin and tell her to read it online--as I am sure it will be on Google's first page.

I voted this useful, interesting and awesome and I will tweet it also.


Bobbi Purvis

Judi Brown from UK on September 22, 2012:

Wow, very thorough! I'm good on the exercise part, but I've let the diet part slide lately - I keep saying it, but I must get back on the healthy wagon!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thanks for the comment and the votes, Angela Kane. I agree - it's very important to take care of our heart, especially as we grow older, since it's vital for our health as well as our survival.

Angela Kane from Las Vegas, Nevada on September 22, 2012:

The heart is the most important vessel in our bodies and I think we need to take better care of it to make sure it is working properly and remains healthy. Great hub and I voted it up and useful.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thank you so much for the comment, the vote and the share, bdegiulio! I appreciate them all.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on September 22, 2012:

Alicia, this is a very well researched and written Hub. Everyone should be aware of the changes that occur to the heart and body as we age. Thank you for summarizing all of this very useful information. Definitely voting up and sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thank you very much, Bill! I appreciate your visit and the comment.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 22, 2012:

A wonderful and very useful hub! Great research and suggestions about a topic everyone should take seriously.