Seniors: Aging Factor For Heart Disease
Your heart is a strong muscle about the size of the palm of your hand. Just like an engine makes a car go, the heart keeps your body running. The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood through a network of blood vessels called arteries (taking blood away from the heart) and veins (bringing blood back to the heart).
Some changes in the heart and blood vessels are normal as you grow older. But over time, disease can damage your blood vessels and your heart.
A common problem for older people is arteriosclerosis. This is a stiffening of the arteries that happens,in part, because of growing older. Atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits as plaques, is another cause. When plaque builds up along the walls of arteries, there is less space for blood to flow. This makes it harder for blood to get to all the parts of the body that need it, including the heart itself. Other changes to the heart happen as you age. For example, to help the heart pump blood through stiffer blood vessels, some parts of the heart wall thicken. The size of the four sections of the heart also changes. So do the valves (door-like parts that open and close to control the flow of blood between those sections). The number of heart beats each minute when you are resting (the heart rate) does not change as you age, but the heart can’t beat as fast when you are physically active or stressed as it did when you were younger.
There are many different kinds of heart disease. Plaque buildup is often to blame. But there are other causes too. For example, choices you might make every day can lead to damage to artery walls. Do you smoke? Do you drink a lot of alcohol? Are you overweight? Do you spend the day sitting at a desk or in front of the television? Do you avoid doing exercise? Do you have diabetes or high blood pressure that is not under control? Are you under a lot of stress? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, making changes might help you prevent or delay heart disease. Things you can’t control, like your family history, might also increase your risk of heart disease. But even so, leading a heart healthy lifestyle might help you avoid or delay serious illness.
One sign that you are at risk for heart disease is your waist measurement. Extra fat around the middle of your body increases risk. A good way to check that is simply to measure your waist. A man’s risk of heart disease is increased if his waist measures more than 40 inches. A woman’s risk is increased at 35 inches.
Signs of Heart Disease
Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms; that’s why regular checkups with a healthcare provider are important. Your doctor will check things like cholesterol, a fat that can add to plaques in your arteries, and your blood pressure. He might also do a blood test for CRP (c-reactive protein). You might also have an ECG or EKG, an electrocardiogram. This is a test that looks at electrical activity in your heart.
People experience the symptoms of an oncoming heart attack differently. Women and those older than 75, especially, are less likely to feel any chest pain and more likely to suffer what is known as a silent heart attack. The problem is that silent heart attacks don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs but are equally deadly. In fact, they are even more common in older adults than heart attacks that immediately come to the attention of doctors and patients, according to a recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (as reported in “The Deadly Threat of Silent Heart Attacks,” New Old Age blog, New York Times). Silent heart attacks are hard to diagnose because the symptoms can be vague: prolonged fatigue, confusion, shortness of breath.
In general, common symptoms of a traditional heart attack include:
• Chest pain and pain that originates in the chest and spreads to the back, jaw or arms. People may also feel pain in all of these places and not the chest, or they may feel pain in the stomach area and mistake it for indigestion. The pain is like that of angina but usually more severe and longer lasting, and it does not get better by resting or taking a nitroglycerin pill.
• Sudden sweating
• Heavy pounding of the heart
• Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), which occur in more than 90 percent of people who have had a heart attack
• Loss of consciousness, which sometimes is the first symptom of a heart attack
• Feelings of restlessness, sweatiness, anxiety and a sense of impending doom
• Bluishness of the lips, hands or feet
Certain symptoms are mostly seen in older adults:
• Shortness of breath
• Progressive fatigue
• Heartbeats that are too fast, too slow or irregular
• Pain in the left chest, or more commonly, “chest tightness,” especially if brought about by physical or emotional stress
• Symptoms that resemble a stroke, such as feeling disoriented
Because half the deaths from a heart attack occur in the first three or four hours after symptoms begin, it’s important to take these symptoms seriously and get medical treatment as soon as possible.
Heart Attack? Call 9-1-1
Act in time: Learn the warning signs of a heart attack. If you or someone you know might be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away. You need to take an ambulance to the hospital as soon as possible.
Do not try to drive yourself, and do not have someone else drive you unless there is no ambulance service where you live.
These warning signs can include crushing chest pain and/or discomfort or pain elsewhere in the upper body, nausea, a cold sweat, fainting or lightheadedness, or shortness of breath.
For more information, here are some helpful resources:
American Heart Association
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Health Information Center
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
National Library of Medicine