What You Should Know About the Aging Heart

People today live far longer than in past eras, but increasing age still takes a toll on our modern-day bodies. No matter how healthy or genetically fortunate we are, the older we get, cellular, muscular, neurological, and organic decline will inevitably cross our paths. And, of course, this includes our heart and circulatory system. But there are prudent measures we can take at any age to increase our chances of building and maintaining better heart health and to improve our likelihood of longer, more vigorous lives.

Heart Changes with Age

As people get older, so do their organs, and there are some typical changes that affect the heart over periods of time. Normal changes in the heart include deposits of the "aging pigment," lipofuscin. Heart muscle cells degenerate slightly, and the valves inside the heart, which control the direction of blood flow, may thicken and the heart chambers may become slightly stiffer. Blood vessels throughout the body are also subject to age-associated changes, becoming less efficient and sometimes partially blocked by fatty deposits.  

Ivan Salgo, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer at Philips Patient Care and Monitoring Solutions, explains that the heart has a natural pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat. Some of this systems’ pathways may change and alter heart rhythm or rate. These changes may be benign, but sometimes need attention. That’s why your doctor checks an electrocardiogram, or EKG.

A mild increase in the size of the heart, especially the left ventricle, is also not uncommon, according to Dr. Salgo. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood the chamber can hold may actually decrease despite the increased overall heart size, and the heart may fill more slowly.

Heart changes cause the EKG of a normal, healthy older person to be slightly different than that of someone healthy and younger. Abnormal rhythms, or arrhythmias, are more common in older people, and frequently are the result of heart disease.

Why These Changes Matter

Paul Adams, Senior Director of Product Management for Philips Lifeline and a cardiothoracic nurse who practiced in the UK, summarizes the effect of these changes: "Quite often, the heart becomes less able to pump blood as well when you make it work harder." Several factors can place an additional burden on the heart, including some medications, physical exertion, emotional stress, infection, illness, and significant injury.

"The good news is that several behaviors can lessen the likelihood that heart and circulatory problems will arise or will lessen their severity if they do," Adams says. He adds, "treating your body well can add years to life and life to years."

Important behaviors to promote your best heart health include:

  • Fully and carefully complying with your medication schedule
  • Quitting smoking
  • Following your primary caregiver's plan to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, or other chronic health problems
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Becoming more physically active

Another sensible step is to enable yourself to get quick access to help if, despite your best efforts, a health emergency arises -- especially if you live alone. Philips Lifeline’s medical alert systems can provide access to a response associate to get you help with the press of a button. You can also get service with features including AutoAlert fall detection that can automatically call for help if a fall is detected1 and the ability for GoSafe to automatically pinpoint the location of the person, using the latest locator technology.

“We know exactly where you are without you having to respond,” says Adams. “That’s a massive advancement in terms of supporting people at home. With the technology that exists today, we can quickly send help.”

Take Action for Your Heart

The takeaway is that like you, your heart will age. But you can take steps to do your best to keep it as healthy as possible. "No one lives forever, but we are in charge of our own bodies,” says Dr. Salgo. “If we strive to maintain a positive attitude and take the actions needed to promote our health we will enjoy better quality of life for every day we have."

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