Every year, February is American Heart Month, a time when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promote an initiative to raise awareness about heart health. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death among both women and men in the U.S., accounting for more than 600,000 deaths annually.
About the size of your fist, the heart transports the blood that delivers oxygen and nutrients to all the tissues in your body, as well as removing carbon dioxide and waste from your body. Every cell in the human body is in constant need of nutrition to function and survive. Without blood, these tissues starve and die. That’s why the heart is one of the most critical organs in the body.
The heart is made almost entirely of muscle whose contractions pump blood through the body. Its structure includes four chambers, an upper and lower chamber on each side, separated by a wall of muscle called the septum. Valves located between the chambers regulate the flow of blood through the heart, making sure it is always flowing in the correct direction. The contractions, or heartbeats, are controlled by electrical impulses from the nervous system at the sinoatrial node.
The heart and aging
Like most of the organs in your body, the heart’s ability to function diminishes a little as we get older. For example, while your resting heart rate stays about the same as you age, the number of beats per minute during physical activity slows down. Aside from that, though, most of the heart problems people experience later in life come from heart disease, not age.
A common health issue related to aging, for example, is arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, which is linked to high blood pressure. As blood vessels become stiffer, some parts of the heart wall will thicken to compensate for the reduction in blood flow. The valves in the heart can also become stiffer and thicker, leading to seepage inside the heart.
Plus, some people who have undergone chemotherapy treatments or suffered from thyroid disease can develop certain forms of heart disease.
Heart health for seniors
While the risk does increase as you get older, it’s a myth that heart disease is an inevitable part of aging. Still, almost 85 percent of all deaths at age 65 and older are caused by heart disease, so it’s important to pay attention to living a heart-healthy lifestyle. By maintaining your heart function as you get older, you can enjoy a good quality of life and continue doing the activities you love, even if you slow down a little.
One of the most important steps you should take is learning the symptoms of heart disease so you can bring them to your doctor’s attention if you experience any of them. If you notice any of the following, be sure to make an appointment to get checked out.
- Pain or uncomfortable pressure in the chest
- Light-headedness or feeling weak or faint
- Difficulty catching your breath or taking a deep breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Strange pains in the neck, back, or shoulders
- The sensation of being full or experiencing indigestion
- Excess sweating
- Irregular heartbeat
In general, there are several steps you can take to improve your heart health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. They include:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits
- Get 30 minutes of exercise five or six days a week
- If you smoke, quit… immediately
- Keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum
- Get regular check-ups and pay attention to your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers
- Keep excess weight off
- Avoid stress as much as you can
It may seem like a lot, but once you get started, you’ll quickly get used to it. And American Heart Month is a great time to take care of your heart so it can help you live a happy, active life for many years to come.