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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 Aging Gracefully: Recognition and Prevention of Cardiovascular Troublethrough 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.

Proactive Prevention
You do have control over some heart-related diseases such as high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which can all lead to more serious medical conditions. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following eight dietary tips for preventing heart disease: 
1. Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol;
2. Choose low-fat protein food sources;
3. Eat more vegetables and fruits;
4. Select whole grains;
5. Reduce the salt in your food;
6. Control portion sizes;
7. Plan ahead to create healthy menus;
8. Allow yourself an occasional treat.
With your health care provider's approval, take part in an exercise program that meets your interests and capabilities. Regular exercise can reduce your chances of suffering from obesity, blood pressure issues, diabetes and heart disease. Eating a healthy diet and reducing fat intake helps control high cholesterol and fosters overall good health. With proper nutrients, your body is better equipped to fight certain conditions that damage your heart and circulatory system.
Studies show that even though these heart-related diseases are prevalent in the elderly, there is no positive proof that the aging process is to blame. They can perhaps be attributed to the fact that seniors live long enough to develop these problems. Because cardiovascular symptoms occur on the inside, it is hard to determine if something is normal or not. Err on the side of caution, and always consult your doctor if you sense a change that you are not sure about. Visit your doctor regularly, and do not miss check-ups. Early detection and intervention not only help you age gracefully, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Mayo Clinic (2012). Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2013). Heart arrhythmias. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2013). Heart failure. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2013). Anemia. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2012). Aging: what to expect as you get older. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2012). High blood pressure (hypertension). Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2012). Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from
Mayo Clinic (2012). Coronary artery disease. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from (2013). Aging changes in the heart and blood vessels. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from 
Hoyle, M. Gideon (2013). The normal aging process & the cardiovascular system. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from (2012). High Blood Pressure. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from The Merck Manual of Geriatrics. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from (2010). Symptoms of High Cholesterol. Retrieved on 1/16/14 from




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