HCA image for aging hearts Have you ever wondered why some older people can run marathons, while others have a hard time getting up out of a chair? Much of this inconsistency has to do with the way the heart ages. Researchers are currently studying age-related changes in the heart, trying to find out how to slow down—or even reverse—some of these changes. What they are finding is that many of the changes that commonly occur within the heart have as much to do with lifestyle as with age. This means that by eating more healthfully and exercising more, you can help keep your heart healthy as you age.

Changes in the Heart

As we age, certain changes in the heart are inevitable. Even in the absence of disease, the walls of the heart thicken, heart rate slows, maximum heart rate declines, and the heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it once did. Some scientists speculate that some of these changes occur because the heart is adjusting—not necessarily declining—as the years go by.

With each passing decade, our hearts relax more slowly than when we were young, causing the heart to fill with blood more slowly, pump more slowly at rest, and not keep pace as well with demand when we exercise. These adjustments make it difficult for the heart to pump as efficiently as it once did.

Changes in the Arteries

As people grow older, their arteries—which carry blood away from the heart—grow stiffer, and the walls get thicker. This process, part of ]]>atherosclerosis]]> (the build-up of fatty deposits on the inside of the arteries) significantly increases the risk of heart disease and ]]>stroke]]>. The major causes of atherosclerosis include ]]>high blood pressure]]>, ]]>high cholesterol]]>, diabetes, ]]>obesity]]>, and cigarette smoking.

Lifestyle Changes: Exercise and Diet

Research has shown that physical fitness declines 5%-10% per decade—but it doesn’t have to. Studies on people who are middle-aged and older show that serious athletes have twice the physical fitness of their sedentary peers. Older athletes' hearts function much like the hearts of their younger counterparts. Regular exercise causes the heart to pump more efficiently, even when exercise begins later in life.

Regular aerobic exercise can reduce age-related stiffening of the arteries. People who are more physically fit have less stiff, more compliant arteries.

Diets high in saturated fats and trans fats have been shown to raise LDL ("bad cholesterol") cholesterol levels. High LDL cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis, which increases the risk for stroke and heart disease. By replacing saturated and trans fats like red meat and margarine with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like fish and olive oil (which raise healthy HDL ["good" cholesterol] cholesterol), you can significantly decrease the chance of having fatty deposits in your arteries.

What Lies Ahead

As researchers are discovering that it may not be age, but age-associated changes, that make older people at higher risk for heart problems, more research is on the way. Studies are trying to determine what we should eat and how much exercise we should get to prevent some of these age-associated changes. Further research is looking into how drugs and gene therapies can prevent the decline of heart health with age.

While this research is taking place, it is important to remember that making certain lifestyle changes is one of the safest, most effective ways to promote heart health. To help keep your heart healthy as you grow older, adopt the following lifestyle changes:

As you get older, it is important to visit your physician regularly. By keeping tabs on cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, you can make lifestyle changes and get access to medications before you get heart disease or have a stroke.