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Treat your ticker: Ways to manage heart health

Chances are, we all know someone who currently has, or had heart disease in their lifetime.  Although we know more about heart disease than ever before, education and prevention are still at the forefront of a lot of seniors’ minds. Here are some ways to become familiar with the effects of aging on the heart, and reasons why seniors ought to keep an eye on their cardiovascular well-being.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD), is a cluster term encompassing conditions and disorders related to the heart, blood vessels and circulatory system function. Those can include:

  • Coronary artery disease: The most common form of heart disease, it's caused by plaque build-up in the arteries, which obstructs or blocks blood flow. It can lead to heart attack.
  • Congestive heart failure: When the body can't pump enough blood to sustain the body, fluid accumulation in vital organs like the lungs and the liver can strain and further weaken the heart.
  • Angina: These are the typical stabbing pains and discomfort associated with heart attacks. Chest pains can feel like pressure, but other areas of the body may hurt too, like the jaw or shoulder.

Heart disease can also be closely related to stroke and stroke risk, another concern for seniors. Ruptured or stopped up blood vessels are the most common causes for stroke, further emphasizing the need for heart health awareness.

Why is heart health important?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women nationwide. Nearly one in four U.S. deaths each year is attributable to CVD, about 610,000 annually. Each year 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack; of them 525,000 will experience one for the first time. Nearly half of the general population has at least one of the three major risk factors: high cholesterol, diabetes and/or a smoking habit. The statistics paint an alarming picture of heart disease risk in America, which makes education and prevention outreach all the more important.

How does aging affect heart health?

Heart disease affects people of all ages and ethnicities, but seniors in particular should pay closer attention to heart health. CVD and stroke risks increase after 65. Why? Aging causes changes in the body over time. The hearts of older individuals cannot beat as fast as those of healthy middle-aged adults. This can happen during both minimal physical activity and periods of stress, anxiety, grief and other emotions. The heart can physically change over time, hardening or thickening in some places, which causes problems. Plaque built up over a lifetime and untreated hypertension can also multiply the risks seniors face if they have preexisting conditions or present numerous risk factors.

What can seniors do to prevent CVD?

Fortunately, there are still many steps seniors can take to actively combat heart disease, even if they have a disorder or are at risk. Any action seniors take to prevent CVD is a beneficial one, and here are some resolutions to think about making:

  • Get more exercise: Perhaps the No.1 thing seniors can do to take positive steps in heart health management is exercise. The primary benefits of exercise are better circulation, better regulation of blood pressure and better mitigation of diabetes. Exercise is important to a healthy lifestyle overall, and even light cardio work like stairs or water aerobics are good for seniors to pursue on a regular basis.
  • Recognize the symptoms: Early action can only be taken if the signs of heart disease are known. Seniors should become familiar with these symptoms so they can watch themselves, a spouse, a friend or a neighbor. Red flags include shortness of breath, pain or numbness, confusion or dizziness, chest pain at rest, cold sweats, fatigue and difficulty with normal activities.
  • Eat a healthier diet: A consistently poor diet can be a factor in developing CVD. Seniors should try to cut out junk food, limit red meat and get more nutrition. How? Try substituting in fish for a couple meals, or snacking on nuts instead of potato chips. Adding more fruits and vegetables is guaranteed to improve diet, as well as help prevent heart disease by providing beneficial vitamins and nutrients.
  • Learn more about cholesterol: Cholesterol is easily misunderstood, with "good" and "bad" types existing. Cholesterol education is a goal for public health agencies, and something seniors should think about, as about one-third of Americans have high cholesterol. Learning about the differences in cholesterol, what role each type plays, what blood cholesterol is and what cholesterol management strategies exist can help seniors get a better grip over their heart health.

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