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Aging Gracefully: Recognition and Prevention of Cardiovascular Trouble
As we age, our bodies change. What is normal? What is not? In this article, we look at the cardiovascular system to see how it ages.
The cardiovascular system is complex and extends beyond our heart through arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood throughout the body. With every heartbeat, these parts work hard to clean carbon dioxide from our blood and pump oxygen-filled blood to all parts of the body. Certain changes that take place within the cardiovascular system as we age are normal and not cause for concern. Other changes may be warning signals that, if missed, can have life-threatening consequences. Knowing what these changes mean is the key element to identifying what may be normal versus what could be an underlying symptom that requires medical attention.
You should always consult your doctor for medical advice. However, the Mayo Clinic provides this broad overview of cardiovascular complications that you may experience as you age:
- High cholesterol -- Produces fatty buildup within the arteries that restricts blood flow and causes coronary artery disease. It eventually results in angina (chest pains) or heart attack. High cholesterol usually has no symptoms until severe; it requires blood work to detect early on.
- Coronary artery disease -- Develops when the coronary arteries become damaged or diseased. Often a result of fatty cholesterol buildup, it can cause angina or heart attack. Patients with this disease sometimes experience heart pain and shortness of breath. However, without testing cholesterol levels, coronary artery disease can go undetected until a heart attack or stroke occurs.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) -- Can lead to heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, peripheral artery disease and aortic aneurysms. It is usually undetectable without testing until severe, but symptoms can include dizziness, dull headaches and nosebleeds.
- Arteriosclerosis -- Narrows the arteries, which reduces blood flow to your limbs. It is often caused by plaque build-up in the arteries, and it can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms may not be present until the condition is severe and include numbness of limbs, chest pain and leg pain when walking.
- Anemia -- Caused by low red blood cell count. Symptoms include fatigue, chest pains, irregular heartbeat and coldness of the extremities.
- Abnormal heart rhythms (irregular heart beat) -- Caused by a weak or damaged heart. Symptoms include a fluttering heart, shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness, dizziness and fainting. It's important to know that these symptoms can also be present in normal, healthy adults, or they could be a symptom of ventricular fibrillation, an extremely serious cardiac rhythm disturbance.
- Congestive heart failure -- Can be caused by coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, edema (swelling of hands and feet), irregular heartbeat, loss of appetite or nausea, or swelling of the abdomen.
Some of the symptoms described above can be considered normal or may not be related to the condition at all, but others can be life threatening. It is vitally important to seek the help of your doctor to determine the severity of your symptoms and how they relate to your health. Signs and symptoms vary from person to person, depending on the overall health of each individual.