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Heart Trouble & Aging: What happens to your cardiovascular system as you get older?
Heart Health And Healthy Aging
When someone is considered the “heart” of the team, it usually means that individual is the vital piece to the organization. The same holds true for your body. The heart is the muscle at the center of the circulatory system — the network of veins and arteries that supplies blood to the rest of your body. In order to work properly, our bodies must use blood to transport oxygen and other vital nutrients to our organs — and the heart is the central pump for that system!
That’s why we need to support our cardiovascular health at all ages — not only in the golden years of our lives. That said, while it is crucial to nourish your cardiovascular system at all stages of life, the risk of developing cardiovascular issues do escalate as we age.
The Link Between Heart Trouble And Aging
According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 85.6 million American adults have 1 or more types of cardiovascular disease, or CVD. About half of these adults are aged 60 and older. For those aged 60-79, 69.1% of men and 67.9% of women have some form of CVD. As for adults aged 80+, heart disease is prevalent in a staggering 84.7% of men and 85.9% of women.
But what’s behind these numbers? After all, if you want to support your heart health, it is important to understand the link between heart trouble and aging.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aging can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels. And these changes can affect your activity levels each and every day. You see, as we get older, the heart is unable to beat as fast during exercise — or even during walking or at times of stress — as it did in our younger years.
The most common difference in cardiovascular health as we get older lies within the arteries. Our large arteries experience arteriosclerosis, a condition in which they become increasingly stiff as time goes on. The hardening of arteries causes high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Here, we begin to see why cardiovascular issues are more common in American adults aged 60+.
Another age-related change to the heart lies within the heart’s four chambers (the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles). As we get older, the chambers of the heart may increase in size due to the thickening of the heart’s walls. As a result, the amount of blood each chamber is able to hold may decrease, which may cause the heart to fill more slowly. The National Institute on Aging division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that long-standing hypertension is the primary cause of the thickening of the heart wall, and could increase the likelihood of atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm problem in older adults.
So, what does this mean? Well, for starters, it indicates that we must take care of our hearts at all stages of adulthood, especially once we reach 60 years of age.
Support Your Heart Throughout Your Healthy Aging Journey
As previously stated, our hearts change as we age. Although your cardiovascular system may not be as strong as it once was, it is never too late to start taking care of your heart health! Be sure to participate in physical activity and consume plenty of nutrients to nourish your heart.
Believe it or not, these nutrients are found in the food we eat on a daily basis. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some key nutrients to support your heart health throughout the golden years of life.
Fish oil, a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), was recently involved in a study that tested its impact on cardiovascular health. This trial was the largest study of its kind to date. Nearly half a million adults in the United Kingdom participated from 2006-2010, with a follow up at the end of 2018. This study was designed to track the effectiveness of fish oil in a real-life setting as opposed to short-term lab conditions.
Although fish oil has historically been involved in large-scale controlled trials focusing on its ability to reduce the risk of CVD and related health incidents, the evidence across the board was scattered. That is why this particular study tracked an astonishing 427,678 men and women between the ages of 40-69 who did not have history of CVD at the time the study began.
Of the near half-million participants, 31% reported the habitual use of fish oil supplements. These regular fish oil users experienced a 13% reduction in all-cause mortality rates, a 16% reduction in CVD mortality rates, and a 7% reduction in incident CVD events compared to the participants who did not use the supplements.
Researchers noted a trio of mechanism that could explain why fish oil supplementation is beneficial for cardiovascular health:
- The results of serval studies show omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on blood pressure, heart rate, and plasma triglycerides. All three bolster protective effects against CVD.
- Omega-3 has been shown in multiple trials to improve flow-mediated arterial dilation, which is a measure of endothelial function that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels.
- Fatty acids from omega-3 have been shown to contain anti-arrhythmic properties that could fare well in clinical research.
The U.K.-based researchers concluded that, “Habitual use of fish oil seems to be associated with a lower risk of all-cause and CVD mortality and to provide a marginal benefit against CVD events among the general population.” They also noted, “The protective association of fish oil use against CVD events was somewhat stronger in those with prevalent hypertension.”
According to this comprehensive review published in StatPearls, a peer-reviewed library for medical professionals, the world does not get enough Vitamin D. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A lack of Vitamin D could lead to health problems and is linked to our cardiovascular wellbeing.
And this is not just a “somewhere else” problem; many Americans do not receive enough of the “sunshine vitamin” as well. As reported in the scientific journal Nutrition Research in 2011, an average of 41% of American adults are Vitamin D deficient, with that number soaring upwards to over 82% for some ethnicities and ages.
The International Journal of Health Sciences referred to the long withstanding Vitamin D issue as an “Ignored Epidemic.” It cited long-term strategies such as public education, national health policies, and treatment with Vitamin D on a global scale as steps to take to address the global health problem.
There is room for further research when it comes to establishing a link between Vitamin D and cardiovascular health. Johns Hopkins University alluded to the growing number of studies that indicate a connection between Vitamin D deficiency and cardiovascular disease, along with associated conditions such as high blood pressure.
Back in 2014, a randomized, double blind trial evaluated the effectiveness of CoQ10 as a treatment in chronic heart failure (HF). A group of 420 patients with moderate to severe HF were randomly assigned either 100 mg of CoQ10 3 times a day or placebo over a span of 2 years.
The following data was used to measure the progress of each participant:
- Cardiovascular mortality
- All-cause mortality
- Incidence of hospital stays due to HF
All three measurements were significantly lower in the CoQ10 group compared to the placebo group. As a result, the study concluded, “long-term CoQ10 treatment of patients with chronic HF is safe, improves symptoms, and reduces major adverse cardiovascular events.”
Not too long ago, the link between serum concentrations of plant sterols on cardiovascular risk was unclear. However, a 2012 systematic review set out to investigate the connection between plant sterols and cardiovascular disease. The research was based off the following claim:
“There is substantial evidence that the incidence of CVD can be reduced by lowering LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C), either through diet or through the use of lipid-lowering agents, primarily statins. In this regard, it is relevant that ingestion of supplements of plant sterols (also called phytosterols) has been known to effectively lower serum concentrations of cholesterol and LDL-C since the early 1950's.”
Although the findings did not explicitly state that plant sterol intake directly lowers the risk of CVD, it does leave room for potential studies to focus on inverse relationship between LDL-C and plant sterols.
A meta-analysis punished in Food & Nutrition Research was enacted to “more precisely quantify the effect of plant sterol enriched products on LDL cholesterol concentrations than what is reported previously, and to identify and quantify the effects of subjects’ characteristics, food carrier, frequency and time of intake on efficacy of plant sterols as cholesterol lowering agents.”
This analysis referred to the findings of 59 randomized clinical trials published between 1992 and 2006. The results found that a greater reduction in LDL-C took place in those with high baseline levels compared to those with normal baseline levels of LDL-C. Furthermore, reductions in LDL-C were greater when plant sterols were added to fat spreads, mayonnaise salad dressing, milk, and yogurt. By comparison, reductions were lessened when plant sterols were incorporated into croissants, orange juice, cereal bars, chocolate, and non-fat beverages.
One of the most important functions of Vitamin K2 is helping calcium reach your bones, rather than your arteries. This process helps prevent the calcification and stiffening of arteries. In turn, this means that adequate Vitamin K2 intake can promote bone mineral density and keep our bones strong. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that consuming elevated amounts of calcium supplements may raise the risk for heart disease, as stated in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal. Noting that vitamin K2 lowers the risk of damage to blood vessel walls, by activating a protein that inhibits calcium deposits, this review states that increasing vitamin K intake “could be a means of lowering calcium-associated health risks.”
With all this in mind, we know that Vitamin K2 can promote bone health and keep our bones strong and healthy. But it may play a role in cardiovascular health as well, as an increase in Vitamin K2 intake is linked to the inhibition of arterial stiffening. Given its association with cardiovascular function, it is crucial to keep our arteries healthy in order for blood nutrients and oxygen to travel to the heart.
The key takeaway here is that Vitamin K plays a key role in regulating calcium deposition. It helps direct calcium to our bones instead of our arteries. This function helps promote strong bones, while keeping our arteries flexible for blood to flow throughout the body!
Watch Out For Calcium and Magnesium
Many older Americans take calcium supplements to keep their bones strong and healthy. Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Dr. Robert Wermers attributes this to age: “The ability to maintain calcium balance worsens and bone loss accelerates after 50 years of age. Your risk of fracture also increases with older age.” However, as previously stated, the consumption of elevated amounts of calcium may raise the risk of heart disease.
Though this is cause for concern, studies show that magnesium may help protect our cardiovascular health by maintaining a proper magnesium/calcium balance. Back in 2013, scientists set out to examine the role magnesium plays on coronary artery calcification (CAC) and abdominal aortic calcification (AAC). The participants were free of cardiovascular disease and underwent a series of tests that considered the following factors: age, sex, body mass index, smoking status, systolic blood pressure, fasting insulin, total-to-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol ratio, and more.
The results indicated that a self-reported 50 mg of magnesium a day was associated with 22% lower CAC and 12% lower AAC. To add to this, the study stated, “the odds of having any CAC were 58% lower and any AAC were 34% lower in those with the highest compared to those with the lowest magnesium intake.” (Note: the study observed stronger inverse associations in woman than in men.)
Scientists concluded that self-reported magnesium intake in participants free of cardiovascular disease was associated with a decline in arterial calcification. This reasoning could allude to why magnesium plays a role in protecting the body from coronary heart disease.
By now, it is clear that we need to nourish our cardiovascular health with plenty of vitamins and minerals. However, it is vital to remain active during all stages of life as well. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
The AHA recommends “intense” physical activity, or anything that moves your body and burns calories. This includes common activity such as walking, stair climbing, and even stretching. They stress the importance of aerobic activity, or cardio as we like to call it in the gym, to get the job done. This workout gets your heart rate up and improves cardiorespiratory fitness.
If you’re looking to go a step further, the AHA recommends the following aerobic activities:
- Brisk walking – at least 2.5 miles per hour
- Water aerobics
- Tennis (doubles) – with a teammate
- Biking – at a rate that does not exceed 10 mph
The key takeaway here is to move more, with more intensity, and to sit less. The AHA makes it clear that the right amount of physical activity decreases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.
Prioritize Your Heart Health
As previously mentioned, the “heart” is a vital aspect of all living things. And when it comes to heart health, we must support the most important muscle in our bodies with nutrients and physical activity at all stages of life. For more information on how to protect your heart, head over to the American Heart Association.