Changes to the Heart with Age
As we get older, our heart can’t beat as fast during physical activity or stress as when we were younger. However, the heart rate at rest does not change as we age.
Many of the problems older adults have with their heart and blood vessels are really caused by disease, not by aging. An older heart can normally pump blood as strongly as a younger heart; less ability to pump blood is caused by disease. But, changes that happen with age may increase a person’s risk of heart disease.
A common problem related to aging is “hardening of the arteries,” which is why blood pressure goes up with age. Additionally, age can cause the following changes:
- Blood vessels can become stiffer, and some parts of the heart wall will thicken to help with blood flow.
- Your valves (one-way, door-like parts that open and close to control the blood flow inside your heart) may become thicker and stiffer, causing leaks or problems with pumping blood out of the heart.
- The size of the sections of your heart may increase.
Other factors, such as thyroid disease or chemotherapy, may weaken the heart muscle. Things you can’t control, like your family history, might also increase your risk of heart disease. But even so, leading a heart-healthy lifestyle might help you avoid or delay serious illness. Things you can do:
- Don’t smoke
- Stay at a healthy weight
- Avoid spending hours every day sitting
- Keep your diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol under control
DID YOU KNOW?
Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms, or the symptoms may be barely noticeable. This is especially true in older adults. That’s why regular checkups with your doctor are important.
Contact your doctor right away if you feel any chest pain. However, as you get older, chest pain is a less common sign of heart disease, so be aware of other symptoms. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel:
- Pain in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
- Shortness of breath when active or at rest
- Chest pain during physical activity
- Cold sweats
- Easily tired
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck
- Less able to exercise
- Problems doing your normal activities
Problems with a rapid or irregular heartbeat are much more common in older adults and need to be treated. See a doctor if you feel a fluttering in your chest or have the feeling that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too hard, especially if you are weaker than usual, dizzy, or tired.