How does aging affect the health of your heart?

It is common to see changes in your heart as you age. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your heart healthy.

How does aging affect the health of your heart?

Rock music fans will be happy to know that the man who famously sang “I hope I die before I get old” in the 1965 hit My Generation is still alive, still cutting albums and still doing shows.

But 53 years on the circuit is a long time and age has caught up with Roger Daltrey, frontman for the group ‘The Who’. Today, at 74, his wild ways seem to be behind him – he drinks herbal tea, and says we all have to be “a bit more aware of our mortality”.

So let’s take a cue from the aging rock star and try to be aware of our mortality. But to do that we must also appreciate the inevitable process of aging. We need to understand that as we age, so do our organs: our eyes, ears, bones, brains – and our heart.

And while we can’t prevent the inevitable, we can always take care of our health as we age – or rather, take care of the health of our aging organs.

The aging process

With aging, our organs start losing the ability to function efficiently. This is because an organ depends on its cells to function, and cells lose their vitality as they (we) grow older. 

In normal course our cells die and are replaced by new ones; however, as we grow older, dead cells do not get replaced in some organs such as the liver and kidneys, among others. When the number of cells in an organ falls below a point, that organ fails. We have all heard the dreaded words ‘kidney failure’; this is why it happens. 

However, this is not the case with all organs: the brain, for one. Older people need not lose many brain cells if they are healthy, though certain age-related changes in their brains make them react and perform tasks somewhat more slowly, though not necessarily inaccurately. 

One of the age-related changes the brain has to put up with is a drop in blood flow to it.

The heart

This brings us to the heart: our body’s very own ‘fuel pump’. The heart has a pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat (or ‘pumping’ of blood). The effects of aging are felt on the heart, which becomes stiffer, as do the blood vessels. 

This is how it happens: when we age, some of the passages in the cardiovascular landscape –veins and arteries included – may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. The stiffer the arteries get (especially the aorta, the main artery from the heart) the less they are able to expand when more and more blood is pumped through them. 

As a result, the heart fills with blood much slower than it would when it was younger. 

Another significant change an aging heart sees is a slight increase in size, especially of the left ventricle. The heart wall also thickens, which reduces the capacity of the chamber to hold blood even as the heart gets bigger. 

This is another reason why filling of the heart with blood slows down as we grow older.

Heart rate

Age also affects the heart rate – the number of heartbeats every minute – by slowing it down. This is because the natural pacemaker, like many other body parts, also loses some of its cells during aging. As a result, an older heart cannot pump as much blood or as quickly as it could when younger, making us pant for oxygen. Know that feeling? It’s the main reason why older athletes are unable to keep pace with younger ones.

If you have a normal heart, there’s nothing to worry as you age: it ticks along just as fine as when you were young, going about its business pumping and dispatching sufficient blood to all parts of your body. It is just that the heart has to work harder to pump the required blood at times during times of stress – like when you are ill, or doing strenuous work. 

How your heart health changes with age

Heart diseases

If an organ comes under age-related stress, can ailments be far behind? No, and that is also true of the old ticker; let us look at a few heart ailments and heart diseases:

  • Angina is a chest pain triggered when the blood flow to the heart muscle gets reduced temporarily, causing shortness of breath during exertion; it is not a disease in itself but is a probable symptom of coronary artery disease.
  • Arrhythmia is a condition with abnormal heartbeat of various kinds.
  • Anaemia is a condition where the blood gets deficient in red cells or haemoglobin, leading to an unhealthy pallor and fatigue. It can be caused by malnutrition, chronic infections, blood loss from the gastrointestinal tract, or as a complication of other diseases or medicines.
  • Arteriosclerosis has been discussed earlier; it involves the hardening of the arteries. This is a common condition where fatty plaque deposits inside the blood vessels totally blocks the blood flow.
  • Congestive heart failure is another common ailment among the elderly; people over 75 have been found to be ten times more vulnerable to this condition than younger adults. It is a chronic progressive condition where fluid builds up around the heart and causes it to pump inefficiently.
  • Coronary artery disease is fairly common, and refers to a group of diseases such as stable angina, unstable angina, and sudden cardiac death. It is often a result of arteriosclerosis.
  • High blood pressure and orthostatic hypotension – a form of low blood pressure that occurs when you stand up from a seated or lying down position – are associated with advanced age (sometimes the low BP is on account of an excessive dose of medicines for high BP, as an overdose can cause pressure to fall). 
  • Heart valve diseases are also common as we age; of these the most prevalent is Aortic stenosis or narrowing of the aortic valve.
  • Strokes or Transient Ischemic Attacks occur if blood flow to the brain is disrupted, which can happen among the elderly. 

    These apart, a major artery from the heart (or even in the brain) may develop what is known as an ‘aneurysm’ – the weakening of an artery wall creating a distension or bulge of that artery. Bursting of an aneurysm can cause death.

Precautionary steps

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death globally but that that does not necessarily mean you leave it to fate; there are ways to boost and maintain your heart’s health. Though factors such as heredity and age cannot be altered, what you do have some control over are high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, and habits such as smoking. 

The following steps can be considered to keep heart diseases in check: 

First of all, follow a heart-healthy regimen. Go easy on saturated fat and cholesterol, reduce your weight, and consult a doctor for treating elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.
Second, stop smoking. People who exercise regularly often have less body fat and smoke less than people who do not exercise. They also tend to have fewer blood pressure problems and a lower incidence of heart disease.
Third, get more exercise: it helps prevent obesity and controls blood sugar (diabetic people, please note).
Fourth and final step, have regular checkups to gauge the health of your heart. Men between the ages of 65 and 75 who smoke (or have smoked in the past) should get themselves checked for aneurysms in their abdominal aorta.
The Last Words 

Our heart is quite like the Jonga jeeps of yesteryears; built by the defence ministry under licence from Nissan for the Indian Army, the vehicle reached iconic status for its rugged engine that had almost no mechanical problems, quite like the heart. Production stopped in 1999, but you can still spot a few well-maintained ones chugging along just as before. 

The Army has not found a suitable replacement for the Jonga, nor have we for the heart; our ticker too needs maintenance. Dr. Devi Shetty, one of India’s top heart specialists, says how:  eat a healthy diet, avoid junk food including samosa and masala dosa, exercise daily, do not smoke and if past 30, go for medical checkup, preferably once every six months. 

However, heart ailments do happen, and as they are covered under health plans, it is advisable to get yourself health insurance. For instance, insurance covers angioplasty – a surgical procedure to open the blood vessels – if it is required during the policy period under the indemnity clause. Expensive surgeries are taken care of, and you ensure a happier future for yourself.


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