People aged 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer a heart attack, have a stroke or develop coronary heart disease and heart failure, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute on Aging (NIH). Heart disease is the number-one cause of death in the United States, and the NIH indicates that it’s a major cause of disability, which can limit activity and erode quality of life for millions of seniors.
That’s why it’s critical for you or your aging loved to keep a keen eye toward heart health. And getting all the information to inform your lifestyle choices is a great place to start.
Understanding the Effects of Age on Heart Health
As people age, there can be significant changes happening in the heart and blood vessels. For example, the heart is not as capable of beating as fast during physical activity or times of stress as it might have at a younger age.
To help you get a clearer picture of how aging can impact the health of your heart or that of an aging loved one, here are some of the heart issues listed by the NIH as being commonly associated with aging:
Arteriosclerosis: The most common aging change is increased stiffness or hardening of the large arteries, called arteriosclerosis. This causes high blood pressure, or hypertension, which becomes more common as people age.
Heart disease: Changes that happen with age may increase a person's risk of heart disease, a major cause of which is the buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of arteries over many years.
Atherosclerosis: High blood pressure and other risk factors, including advancing age, increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis. Plaque builds up inside the walls of arteries and, over time, hardens and narrows them. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to organs and other parts of the body.
Heart failure and damage: Oxygen and blood nutrients are supplied to the heart muscle through the coronary arteries. When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, reducing blood flow to your heart muscle, heart disease develops. Over time, the heart muscle can become weakened and/or damaged, resulting in heart failure. Heart damage can be caused by heart attacks, long-standing hypertension and diabetes, and chronic heavy alcohol use.
Arrhythmias: Age-related changes in the body’s electrical system can lead to arrhythmias—a rapid, slowed, or irregular heartbeat—and may result in the need for a pacemaker.
Fluid Buildup: Valves—the one-way, door-like parts that open and close to control blood flow between the chambers of your heart—can become thicker and stiffer as people age. Stiffer valves can limit the flow of blood out of the heart and become leaky, both of which can cause fluid to build up in the lungs or in the body (legs, feet and abdomen).
Atrial fibrillation: The chambers of your heart may increase in size with age. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that a chamber can hold may decrease despite the increased overall heart size. The heart may fill more slowly. Long-standing hypertension is the main cause of increased thickness of the heart wall, which can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm problem in older adults.
Edema: With increasing age, people become more sensitive to salt, which may cause an increase in blood pressure and/or ankle or foot swelling.
Given the seriousness of heart-related health problems such as these, the importance of leading a heart-healthy lifestyle cannot be understated. Doing so can enable seniors to possibly delay, lower, avoid or even reverse these physical risks.
Just as essential is maintaining a strong focus on heart-healthy eating. Not sure what this specific kind of nutritional plan looks like? Here’s what you need to know.
Tips for Seniors to Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet
Whether you’re preparing meals at home for yourself or the senior in your life, or you’re relying on the services of a senior living community, there are fundamental ways to ensure that you’re doing all you can to prioritize heart-healthy food options. Tina Miller, United Methodist Homes’ Senior Care Dietitian, offers the following tips sourced from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Nutrition Care Manual, Heart Healthy Nutrition Therapy:
Eat a balanced diet with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean protein sources.
Limit refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Consume foods rich in soluble fiber.
Choose heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
Limit saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol intake.
Limit the amount of cholesterol you eat to less than 200 milligrams per day.
Choose lean protein and low-fat dairy foods to reduce saturated fat intake.
Eat more plant-based or vegetarian meals using beans and soy foods for protein.
Eat whole, unprocessed foods to limit the amount of sodium (salt) you consume.
If you drink alcohol, limit to one serving per day (women) or two servings per day (men). One serving is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
For even more detail on what to include in your heart-healthy diet, check out these recommendations by food group:
Whole-grain breads and cereals, including whole wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, corn, teff, quinoa, millet, amaranth, brown or wild rice, sorghum and oats
Pasta, especially whole wheat or other whole grain types
Brown rice, quinoa or wild rice
Whole-grain crackers, bread, rolls or pitas
Home-made bread with reduced-sodium baking soda
Lean cuts of beef and pork (loin, leg, round, extra lean hamburger)
Venison and other wild game
Dried beans and peas
Nuts and nut butters (unsalted)
Meat alternatives made with soy or textured vegetable protein
Egg whites or egg substitute
Cold cuts made with lean meat or soy protein
Nonfat (skim), low-fat or 1%-fat milk
Nonfat or low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese
Fat-free and low-fat cheese
Fruits & Vegetables
Fresh, frozen or canned vegetables without added fat or salt
Soft or liquid margarines and vegetable oil spreads
Salad dressings made from unsaturated fats
Seeds and nuts
Shining a Spotlight on Seniors and Heart Health
February is nationally observed as American Heart Month, which makes now the perfect time to focus on this area of your physical health or that of an aging loved one.
While heart disease is common in seniors, it doesn’t have to be a fact of life. Awareness of risk factors, a commitment to healthy lifestyle choices and a nutritional plan centered on maintaining heart health can all majorly impact your ability to mitigate heart conditions. Start now with these valuable tips, and honor the needs of your heart.
In 1998, I drove past an assisted living community construction site, learned that it was part of United Methodist Homes and realized the next stop on my professional journey was to work for a mission driven organization. Soon after, I joined the team as Executive Director of our Middlewoods of Farmington community and later served as Regional Manager for the Middlewoods properties before accepting my current role as Vice President of Marketing, Promotions, and Assisted Living Operations. I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, reading, walking, and love working alongside our staff, residents, and families to build strong communities that reflect the mission, vision, and values of United Methodist Homes.
Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.