Young at heart
Old age seems to be inextricably linked to heart disease, and as we get older, our hearts can’t beat as fast during physical activity or stress as it once did. This is because ageing leads to changes in the heart and blood vessels. A few factors that could put extra pressure on our heart include: certain medication, emotional stress, physical exertion, certain illnesses, infections and injuries.

How does my heart change with age?

With age you tend to develop a condition called arteriosclerosis in which your large arteries become stiffer, leading to a spike in blood pressure. There’s also buildup of fatty deposits or plaques on the artery walls, which causes further hardening and narrowing of the arteries, thus restricting blood flow to the heart. This fatty deposits buildup or atherosclerosis often culminates in coronary artery disease, a major risk factor for heart attacks.

Hence, around the world, the 65-plus population is much more susceptible to a heart attack, a stroke, or developing coronary heart disease, than younger people. Heart disease is also a leading cause of disability, adversely affecting the quality of life of millions of elderly people the world over.

Ageing also triggers changes in the electrical system which can lead to arrhythmias or irregular heartbeat, often necessitating a pacemaker implant. The heart valves, the gateway controlling blood flow between the chambers of your heart, could also become thicker and stiffer. This could hamper blood flow, causing fluid buildup in the lungs or in other parts of the body including legs, feet and abdomen.

Thickening of the heart wall, usually caused by long-term hypertension, increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, another common heart rhythm problem in older people. There is also a genetic predisposition, but a heart-healthy lifestyle can help you avoid or delay serious illness.

Congestive heart failure is another very common condition linked to the older population. The incidence of congestive heart failure among the 75-plus is 10 times more than in younger adults. A few other problems that are associated with ageing are:

  • Blood clots forming in the veins, mostly in the leg – deep vein thrombosis (when clots develop in the veins deep inside) and thrombophlebitis (when they form in veins closer to the surface),
  • Blood circulation disorder that causes the blood vessels outside your heart or brain to narrow, block or spasm (peripheral vascular disease)
  • Sometimes faulty valves in the veins cause disruption in the direction of blood flow, resulting in enlarged, swollen twisted veins. These are called varicose veins
  • Sometimes artery walls weaken increasing risk of rupture and internal bleed. This is called aneurysm. When this affects a major artery, it can be cause serious complications

Telltale signs of heart disease

Often, early heart disease doesn’t show discernable symptoms. This is why you should go for periodic medical workups. If you feel any chest pain, an unexplained pressure, or a strange discomfort, call your doctor. Please be cognizant of other signs and symptoms like:

  • Pain, numbness, and/or tingling sensation in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or at prone position
  • Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Unexplained fatigue or tiredness
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck
  • Reduced ability to exercise or be physically active

Also, arrhythmia s or abnormal rhythm problems of the heart are much more common in the older population than the young. So, please see a doctor if you experience a quiver in your chest or feel as if your heart is skipping a beat or beating faster than usual, particularly if you feel dizzy, tired, or breathless on exertion.

What can I do to keep heart disease at bay?

Try these small steps which can make a big difference:

Be physically active: Take up simple activities like brisk walking, bicycling, swimming or gardening. Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, if you can. Don’t sit idle for too long at a stretch.

Quit smoking: It is now well established that smoking leads to the maximum number of preventable deaths. It further damages artery walls. Kicking the habit even at a later stage in life significantly lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Eat healthy: Stick to a diet that comprises plenty of fruits and vegetables and very little trans and saturated fats, added sugars and salt.

Watch your weight: There isn’t any magic formula. The guiding principle here is to balance the calorie intake with calories burnt. In other words, watch your meal portions, and exercise regularly.

Control your diabeteshypertension and cholesterol: Stick to the medications prescribed by your doctor and maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet to keep these conditions/parameters under check. This is vital for your heart health.

Limit alcohol intake: Too much alcohol consumption on a regular basis only adds to the risk of heart disease. So watch that peg or pint.

Manage stress better: Stress is the biggest urban killer of modern times. So find an avenue to de-stress. Work out your stress management programme – it could include yoga and meditation, playing a sport, or spending quality time with family and friends. Sometimes you may need professional help (of counselors) and even medications.

Check for sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a condition when a person’s breathing pauses during sleep. It is an added risk to your cardiovascular health and can be linked to high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and even heart failure.

Get enough sleep: Adequate and undisturbed sleep helps repair your heart and blood vessels. You must try to achieve seven to nine hours of sleep.

Prevention is always the best treatment, but having said that not all factors or circumstances are in our control. At Medica we provide comprehensive heart care, including check-up programmes and comprehensive diagnostic and treatment facilities.

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