We often think of heart disease as a normal part of growing older, and the risks for developing various heart problems do increase with age—particularly for conditions brought about largely by lifestyle choices. Heart issues don’t have to be an inevitability, though. It’s never too late to start living with heart health in mind, and making a few lifestyle changes often can be the best way to keep your ticker healthy as you age.
Heart Conditions That Often Come With Aging
One of the most common heart concerns for senior citizens is atrial fibrillation (AFib), an arrhythmia that occurs when the atria—the smaller, upper chambers of the heart—lose their coordination and quiver erratically. When that happens, the atria aren’t able to thoroughly squeeze blood into the ventricles—the lower chambers of the heart—increasing the risk of developing blood clots, which could lead to a stroke.
Symptoms of AFib include shortness of breath, lightheadedness and a racing pulse, but many people show no signs of the condition.
“The prevalence of AFib goes up as people get older, and since Americans are living longer these days, we’re seeing more of the condition,” says Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital cardiologist Timothy Williams, MD. “AFib is found in many patients when they undergo tests for other reasons, such as preparing for a knee-replacement procedure. Many times people have AFib but aren’t even aware of it.”
For patients who are concerned about AFib, a cardiologist can check the heart by ordering an electrocardiogram. As part of the test, some patients wear a heart monitor that records the heart’s activity for a period of 24-48 hours—and in some cases for 30 days. To help prevent stroke, most cases of AFib can be managed with anticoagulant medications, also known as blood thinners.
“If you’re having symptoms of AFib, it’s important to talk to your doctor and seek treatment,” says Stewart Pollock, MD, a cardiologist with
Sentara RMH Medical Center. “The right treatment, plus healthy lifestyle changes, can improve
a patient’s quality of life.”
Another common heart condition among the elderly is aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the opening to the aortic valve. In older adults, calcium buildup can cause the valve to become worn out. As that occurs, the valve doesn’t open as easily, causing a restricted flow of blood into the body.
Symptoms of aortic stenosis include chest pain or tightness, feeling out of breath, lightheadedness or fainting, or a heart murmur. Surgical valve repair or valve replacement often is required to treat the condition. Left untreated, aortic stenosis can lead to congestive heart failure.
It’s not uncommon for aging patients to require a pacemaker. This life-saving device, which is surgically implanted under the skin near the collarbone and connected to the heart with tiny wires, sends out electrical signals to help maintain a regular heartbeat, and in some cases to help the heart’s four chambers beat in proper sequence. Today’s pacemakers are much more sophisticated than earlier models and may last 5-10 years.
A Heart-Healthy Lifestyle You Can Live With
Opting for healthy lifestyle choices can make a major difference in the health of your heart. Adjusting to new habits isn’t always easy, but even making small changes can yield big results. Here are some things you can do to protect your heart:
Keep chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, under control. See your doctor regularly to monitor these conditions.
Exercise regularly. You don’t have to go out and run a 5K—just get off the couch and do something that gets your heart pumping, like walking, riding a bike or going for a swim. “You can’t overestimate the benefits of exercise, which is one of the cornerstones of decreasing cardiovascular risk,” says Dr. Williams. “Staying fit will help lower your weight and your risk of heart attack, and is arguably better than any pill. Cardiovascular activity is very powerful.”
If you’re smoking, quit now. You can dramatically decrease your risk for most heart problems by kicking the habit.
Eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables.
Keep stress under control, and develop good strategies to deal with stress, such as walking, listening to music or meditating. Keeping calm will help your heart.
Get enough sleep. Without it, you are at risk for a host of health problems, including heart disease.
Stay connected with others—don’t isolate yourself. Get involved in church or community activities to improve your outlook on life. “People who stay active as they get older tend to stay independent longer and lead more fulfilling lives,” says Dr. Pollock.
Of course, one of the most positive steps you can make to take care of your health as you age, including your heart health, is to see your physician or other healthcare provider regularly, and follow his or her advice. And no matter what your age, the best time to start working toward a healthier future is right now.