How Your Heart Changes with Age
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.
There are many steps you can take to keep your heart healthy.
Try to be more physically active. Talk with your doctor about the type of activities that would be best for you. If possible, aim to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Every day is best. It doesn’t have to be done all at once.
Start by doing activities you enjoy—brisk walking, dancing, bowling, bicycling, or gardening, for example. Avoid spending hours every day sitting. For more information on how to exercise safely, check out Go4Life®. This exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) has exercises, motivational tips, and free video and print materials. Go4Life is designed to help you fit exercise and physical activity into your daily life.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. Smoking adds to the damage to artery walls. It’s never too late to get some benefit from quitting smoking. Quitting, even in later life, can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer over time.
Follow a heart-healthy diet. Choose foods that are low in trans and saturated fats, added sugars, and salt. As we get older, we become more sensitive to salt, which can cause swelling in the legs and feet. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and foods high in fiber, like those made from whole grains. Get more information on healthy eating from NIA. You also can find information on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Patterns.
Keep a healthy weight. Balancing the calories you eat and drink with the calories burned by being physically active helps to maintain a healthy weight. Some ways you can maintain a healthy weight include limiting portion size and being physically active. Learn more about how to maintain a healthy weight from NIA. Keep your diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol under control. Follow your doctor’s advice to manage these conditions, and take medications as directed.
High blood cholesterol levels can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. Your doctor can check the level of cholesterol in your blood with a blood test. You must be fasting overnight or for 8 hours before this blood test. This will tell you your overall or total cholesterol level as well as LDL (“bad” cholesterol), HDL (“healthy” cholesterol), and triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood that puts you at risk for heart problems).
Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Men should not have more than two drinks a day and women only one.
One drink is equal to:
• One 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer, ale, or wine cooler
• One 8- or 9-ounce can or bottle of malt liquor
• One 5-ounce glass of red or white wine
• One 1.5-ounce shot glass of distilled spirits like gin, rum, tequila, vodka, or whiskey
Manage stress. Learn how to manage stress, relax, and cope with problems to improve physical and emotional health. Consider activities such as a stress management program, meditation, physical activity, and talking things out with friends or family. To learn more about stress management techniques, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
Ask your doctor questions to learn more about your risk for heart disease and what to do about it. Learn what you can do if you are at increased risk or already have a heart problem.
What is my risk for heart disease?
What is my blood pressure?
What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.) Make sure your doctor has checked a fasting blood sample to determine your cholesterol levels.
Do I need to lose weight for my health?
What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean that I’m at risk for diabetes?
What other screening tests do I need to tell me if I’m at risk for heart disease and how to lower my risk?
What can you do to help me quit smoking?
How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
What’s a heart-healthy eating plan for me?
How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack? If I think I’m having one, what should I do?
THE FUTURE OF RESEARCH ON AGING AND THE HEART
Adults age 65 and older are more likely than younger people to suffer from cardiovascular disease, which is problems with the heart, blood vessels, or both. Aging can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels that may increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
To understand how aging is linked to cardiovascular disease so that we can ultimately develop cures for this group of diseases, we need to first understand what is happening in the healthy but aging heart and blood vessels. This understanding has advanced dramatically in the past 30 years.
Learn more about The Heart Truth®, a national heart disease awareness campaign for women from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Today, more than ever, scientists understand what causes your blood vessels and heart to age and how your aging cardiovascular system leads to cardiovascular disease. In addition, they have pinpointed risk factors that increase the odds a person will develop cardiovascular disease. They are learning much more about how physical activity, diet, and other lifestyle factors influence the “rate of aging” in the healthy heart and arteries. The aging of other organ systems, including the muscles, kidneys, and lungs, also likely contributes to heart disease. Research is ongoing to unravel how these aging systems influence each other, which may reveal new targets for treatments.
In the future, interventions or treatments that slow accelerated aging of the heart and arteries in young and middle-aged people who seem to be healthy could prevent or delay the onset of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular disorders in later life. Some interventions that we already know slow the rate of aging in the heart and arteries include healthy eating, exercise, reducing stress, and quitting smoking. The more we understand the changes that take place in cells and molecules during aging, for example, the closer we get to the possibility of designing drugs that target those changes. Gene therapies can also target specific cellular changes and could potentially be a way to intervene in the aging process. While waiting for these new therapies to be developed, you can still enjoy activities, like exercise and a healthy diet, that can benefit your heart.