How Does the Heart Work?

Your heart functions as a robust muscle, tirelessly pumping blood throughout your body. In a typical, healthy adult, the heart is roughly the size of a clenched fist. Analogous to an engine propelling a car, the heart sustains the body’s operations. Structurally, it comprises two sides, each housing an upper chamber (atrium) and a lower chamber (ventricle). The right side propels blood to the lungs for oxygenation, while the left side receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and distributes it through the body’s arteries. Facilitating this intricate process is the heart’s electrical system, which governs the heart rate (pulse) and orchestrates the synchronized contraction of its chambers.

 

How the Heart Changes with Age

As individuals age, particularly those over 65, the likelihood of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or developing coronary heart disease (referred to as heart disease) and heart failure significantly increases compared to younger age groups.

High blood pressure, a common condition among older individuals, can lead to disability, restricting activity and diminishing the quality of life for millions of seniors. Aging brings about alterations in the heart and blood vessels. For instance, as one ages, the heart may not respond as swiftly during physical exertion or stressful situations compared to younger years. Nevertheless, the resting heart rate, measured in beats per minute, typically remains relatively stable with normal aging. These age-related changes may elevate the risk of heart disease in older adults.

One of the primary contributors to heart disease is the accumulation of fatty deposits within artery walls over an extended period. Fortunately, there are measures one can take to postpone, reduce, or potentially prevent or reverse this risk. A prevalent age-related change is the heightened stiffness of large arteries, known as arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This condition often leads to high blood pressure, or hypertension, which becomes increasingly prevalent as individuals age. High blood pressure, along with other risk factors such as advancing age, heightens the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis.

While atherosclerosis is commonly associated with aging, it’s important to recognize that it’s not an inevitable aspect of getting older because many of its risk factors are modifiable. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque accumulates inside artery walls, gradually hardening and narrowing them, thereby restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to organs and tissues throughout the body. The coronary arteries, which supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle, can also be affected, leading to heart disease as plaque builds up and reduces blood flow to the heart. This diminished blood flow can weaken or damage the heart muscle over time, ultimately resulting in heart failure. Heart damage can stem from various factors, including heart attacks, prolonged hypertension, diabetes, and chronic heavy alcohol consumption.

What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease, known as atherosclerosis, stems from the gradual accumulation of fatty deposits or plaques within the walls of the coronary arteries over many years. These arteries encircle the outer surface of the heart, facilitating the delivery of blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the heart muscle. However, as plaque accumulates within the arteries, the space for normal blood flow diminishes, hindering the supply of oxygen to the heart. Reduced blood flow caused by plaque buildup or sudden plaque rupture can lead to angina (chest pain or discomfort) or a heart attack. When oxygen and nutrient delivery to the heart muscle is inadequate, heart muscle cells may perish (resulting in a heart attack), weakening the heart’s ability to effectively pump blood throughout the body.

Signs of Heart Disease

Early stages of heart disease may not always exhibit noticeable symptoms, making regular checkups with your physician crucial. If you experience any chest pain, pressure, or discomfort, it’s essential to contact your doctor promptly. However, as heart disease advances, chest pain becomes less common, necessitating awareness of other symptoms. Inform your doctor if you notice pain, numbness, or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back, as well as shortness of breath during activity, at rest, or while lying flat. Additionally, chest pain during physical exertion that subsides with rest should be reported to your healthcare provider.

How Can I Prevent Heart Disease?

Maintaining a healthy heart involves several proactive measures. Increase your physical activity levels by discussing suitable activities with your doctor. Strive to achieve a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week, ideally spread throughout each day. You don’t have to complete it all at once. Begin with activities you enjoy, such as brisk walking, dancing, bowling, cycling, or gardening.

Avoid spending hours every day sitting.

Quitting smoking is crucial for heart health as smoking is the primary preventable cause of death. Smoking exacerbates damage to artery walls, but quitting at any age can yield significant benefits. Even later in life, quitting smoking can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer over time.

Follow a heart-healthy diet

Opt for foods that are low in saturated fats, added sugars, and salt, as sensitivity to salt increases with age and can lead to swelling in the legs and feet. Prioritize a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, to promote heart health and overall well-being as you age..

Keep a healthy weight

To maintain a healthy weight, it’s essential to balance the calories consumed with those burned through physical activity. This can be achieved by controlling portion sizes and staying physically active. Additionally, managing conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol is crucial. Follow your doctor’s guidance, adhere to prescribed medications, and prioritize controlling these conditions for overall health and well-being.

Don’t drink a lot of alcohol

It’s recommended that men limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day, while women should stick to one drink per day. A standard drink is equivalent 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, or one 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits like gin, rum, tequila, vodka, or whiskey. Managing stress is also crucial for overall well-being. Consider incorporating stress management techniques such as meditation, participating in a stress management program, engaging in physical activity, or seeking support from friends or family to improve both physical and emotional health.

The Future of Heart Research

Adults aged 65 and older face a higher likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular disease, encompassing issues with the heart, blood vessels, or both. The aging process brings about alterations in the heart and blood vessels, potentially heightening the risk of cardiovascular disease. In order to pave the way for developing effective treatments for this category of diseases, it’s imperative to comprehend the physiological changes occurring in the aging heart and blood vessels. Over the past three decades, significant strides have been made in advancing our understanding of these mechanisms in healthy yet aging individuals.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor:

Consider consulting your doctor to delve deeper into your risk factors for heart disease and explore appropriate measures to mitigate them. Seek guidance on what steps to take if you find yourself at elevated risk or already grappling with a heart condition. Understanding your individual risk profile and implementing tailored interventions can be instrumental in safeguarding your heart health and enhancing overall well-being.

1. What is my risk for heart disease?
2. What is my blood pressure?
3. 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.
4. Do I need to lose weight for my health?
5. What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean that I’m at risk for diabetes?
6. What other screening tests do I need to tell me if I’m at risk for heart disease and how to lower my risk?
7. What can you do to help me quit smoking?
8. How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
9. What’s a heart-healthy eating plan for me?
10. How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack? If I think I’m having one, what should I do?