7 Tips on How to Stay 'Young at Heart'

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Do you know how old your heart is? That answer may not be so simple. There’s a good chance that your heart is aging faster than you are.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of adult men and 20 percent of adult women in this country have a heart that is five years older than their chronological age. In blacks, the gap is a whopping 11 years.

Why does this matter? Because the “older” your heart, the higher your risk for heart attack, stroke (“brain attack”), and other related problems.

Aging hearts are more likely to have stiffer and calcified arteries, thickened and stiffer muscle tissue, abnormalities in the conduction system, and dysfunctional valves.

What Makes a Heart 'Old'?

Although genes may contribute, it is the risk factors for heart disease that cause a heart to age prematurely. The more risk factors you have, and the more severe they are, the older your heart is. While some of these cannot be modified, the majority are under your control. These risk factors include:

  • Chronological age. Risk of heart disease begins to rise after age 55 as blood vessels begin to stiffen and a lifelong buildup of plaque in the arteries starts interfering with blood flow.
  • Gender. Men get heart disease about 10 years earlier in life than women. Women are generally protected by estrogen until after menopause—when their heart risk catches up to that of a man.
  • Family history. Your risk of heart disease increases if your father or brother was diagnosed with it before age 55 or your mother or sister before age 65.
  • Blood pressure. Your heart ages as your blood pressure rises beyond 120/80 mm Hg.
  • Cholesterol. The higher your cholesterol level, the older your heart.
  • Smoking. Any amount of smoking raises the risk of heart attack. Even exposure to secondhand smoke can be dangerous.
  • Weight. Extra weight is hard on your heart muscle.

Turn Back the Clock on Your Heart

Getting older doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy heart. You are never too old to reduce your risk factors—and your heart’s age. Here are seven things you can do to give your heart a youthful lift:

1. Take control over chronic diseases or conditions. Many problems older people have with their heart and blood vessels are caused by other diseases associated with aging, rather than aging itself. For example, it’s not uncommon to develop high blood pressure as you age—and this is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Keeping your blood pressure in the normal range can minimize your risk. The same goes for diabetes and high cholesterol control. Other diseases, such as thyroid disease, and some medications may weaken the heart. Have regular checkups, follow your doctor’s treatment plan, and take your medications as prescribed.

2. Maintain a normal weight. Instead of exploring fad diets, try eating more foods that are good for you—such as salmon, berries, nuts, and olive oil—and less of those that are bad for you. Also, increase your daily intake of fruits and vegetables, eat plenty of fiber, and trade red meat for fish, chicken, and legumes.

You don’t have to eliminate your favorite foods completely, but you should avoid trans fats and eat saturated fats, salt, and refined sugar sparingly. If you need to lose weight, cut back on between-meal snacking or reduce the portions of your favorite food. 

3. Be active. The heart is a muscle, so it needs exercise to keep it in shape. Exercise increases your heart’s pumping power and helps deliver oxygen throughout your body. Regular exercise also helps keep weight and blood pressure under control and reduces stress.

It’s never too late to begin an exercise program. Look for a program geared specifically toward older people.

Even a simple walking program can go a long way toward improving your heart health. Avoid spending hours a day sitting and make a plan to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes five times per week, even if in divided sessions.

If you have a health condition that makes exercise difficult, look for a modified exercise program that’s more suited to your abilities. Then talk to your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough to start the program you are considering.

4. Stop smoking. This is not negotiable! It is absolutely necessary to protect your heart. Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis—a disease that causes plaque to build up in your arteries. The plaque restricts blood flow to your heart and other organs and can rupture, causing a clot that blocks blood flow completely. This can lead to heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.

Cigarettes are very addictive and quitting is hard. The average person tries 7 times before succeeding. Your chances of success increase if you use three different stop-smoking aids simultaneously. Tell your doctor you’d like to quit and ask for a plan.

5. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Period.

6. Get regular checkups. Regular exams that include blood tests can help identify heart problems before they cause a heart attack or stroke. These exams should begin early in life and continue throughout. Make sure you understand how often you should take your medications and have certain blood tests, especially if you have a chronic condition.

7. Don’t ignore unusual symptoms. Listen to your body. If you develop any of the symptoms below, contact your physician immediately. These are not ordinary signs of aging and could be signs of something else:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Chest pain
  • Feelings of doom
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Sudden change in exercise tolerance
  • Heart palpitations
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness

Keeping your heart healthy increases the likelihood that you won’t have to sit out on your golden years, but rather enjoy them to the fullest.

Dr. Rocco is a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic's Tomsich Family Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, serving as Medical Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Stress Testing.

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