Health & Lifestyles
How can I have the best heart health as I age?
An aging heart does tend to face more problems, but there is a lot you can do to delay the onset of many of them as you age. And if you already have heart disease, there also is a lot you can do to successfully manage your condition throughout your senior years. Heart disease usually refers to coronary artery disease, which is when cholesterol plaques build up over time in the arteries of the heart. These plaques can sometimes rupture and cause a heart attack. The main risk factors for developing heart disease are high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and family history. You can't control what you inherit from your parents, but the other risk factors can be monitored and sometimes prevented to help you delay — and perhaps avoid — the onset of heart disease.The most important way is to be aware of your risk factors and then work with your physician to make sure they are being treated appropriately. First of all, if you smoke, you must find a way to stop. Cigarette smoking increases your risk for early development of heart disease, as well as many other conditions, including cancer and lung disease. The next step is maintaining an appropriate weight by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Diabetes and high blood pressure are more prevalent in people who are obese. Routine blood pressure checks and lab work can determine whether you need to start medications that will manage these conditions and will go hand in hand with maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Please check with your physician before you start any new exercise plan and discuss what steps you can take to keep your heart healthy. Another condition common in seniors is an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, which is when the top chamber of the heart beats fast and irregularly and is out of synch with bottom heart chambers. The symptoms for atrial fibrillation can be palpitations, or more subtle with shortness of breath, fatigue or dizziness. It can be diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (ECG). The frequency of atrial fibrillation increases as we age, so seniors should seek medical help when even the vaguest symptoms occur. Once you are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, there are medications that can be used to slow the heart rate down or put it back in normal rhythm. Sometimes procedures are required if the rhythm is resistant to medications and some people seek a more permanent treatment option with an ablation. The main risk of atrial fibrillation is a stroke. When the heart chamber does not beat properly it can pool blood and form a blood clot that can then go to the brain and cause a stroke. Your cardiologist will assess your risk factors and likely start you on blood thinners to prevent stroke. The key to successful aging definitely includes keeping your heart healthy. Don't smoke, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight and your heart will carry you well through your senior years.
Dr. McClanahan is an assistant professor and cardiologist in the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.