Around 2.4 million Canadians suffer from heart disease in one form or another. It’s a leading cause of death nationwide, and if you’re over 65, the risks can be more than meets the eye.
In celebration of strong hearts from coast to coast, we’re sharing three big questions on the threat heart disease represents for seniors, and the main steps you – or your loved one – can take right now to dial back the risk.
First thing’s first – what does ‘heart disease’ mean?
Heart disease itself is a bit of an umbrella term. It doesn’t mean one specific condition. Rather, heart disease can be any condition that affects the structure or function of the heart. And it takes many forms.
From coronary artery and vascular diseases to arrythmias, structural heart abnormalities, infections, and actual heart failure – this key muscle can come under attack in a multitude of ways.
Do age and risk of heart disease go hand-in-hand?
The short answer is: yes. Nine in ten Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke. That compounds in later life; the older you are, the greater the risk. There are a few different reasons for that.
As we age, our risk of chronic conditions and diseases goes up. Many of those other conditions can have complicating effects on the heart, or blood vessels. High blood pressure, for one. Obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol are also high on that list. Even thyroid disease has been known to weaken the heart muscle. Left uncontrolled, these can all lead to heart disease.
But, those conditions alone aren’t the only factors. Our heart and blood vessels also change as we age. Think about the way stress or physical activity might get your heart beat pumping faster than usual. In later life, the heart can’t beat as fast as it did when we were younger. That’s a fundamental change that happens over time and can be a driver for heart disease.
True, too, for the build-up of fatty deposits in our arteries. The cumulative year-over-year effect increases as we hit our sixties, seventies and eighties. More deposits to contend with along those artery walls can be a major cause of heart disease in later life.
That’s also true for age-related changes to the size of the heart’s chambers, the thickness and stiffness of the heart’s valves, and even changes to the “electrical system” within the heart. All of these can play a part in the emergence of heart disease as we age.
How can we stave off heart disease in later life?
Heart disease is definitely more prevalent in people over 65. What’s the good news? It’s still largely preventable. The best offense is a strong defence. Keeping these best practices in mind can help you proactively mitigate the risks that contribute directly to heart disease:
Stick to the program. If you’re managing a chronic illness or medical condition that poses a risk to your heart, focus on exactly that – managing it. Keeping your general health in check can help insulate your heart against the potentially negative effects an existing health condition can wield on this key muscle.
Get – and stay – active. Research shows people 60 and up should do more exercise, not less, if they really want to fend off and prevent heart disease. A study of more than 1 million seniors found those who increased their level of physical activity had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Bonus round: keeping fit also helps you reduce stress, manage weight, and maintain healthy blood pressure. So, when you exercise, you’re actually tackling four different heart disease risk factors at the very same time. Even a walking program can make a positive difference. Still, it goes without saying: talk to your doctor before embarking on a new exercise regime, or revving up your existing one.
Make your diet work harder for you. Where nutrition is concerned, balance is key. Maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t have to mean giving up every single thing you love. Instead, try reducing the not-great things (saturated and trans fats, salt, refined sugar) and focus on amping up your fruit, vegetable and fibre intake. Opt for whole grains and good fats (think olive, canola, veggie and nut oils, seeds and avocados vs. butter, bacon and gravy). Concentrating on how much you eat is just as important as thinking about what you eat. So, keep an eye on your portion size, and use good judgement.
Stay away from the bad stuff. Full stop. Being smoke-free has a major impact on all elements of your health, heart disease included. Sticking to the recommended daily limits for alcohol consumption is also wise. Those vary from men to woman. Set limits, and follow them.
Prioritize your two most important voices. Regular check-ups and screenings enable your doctor to help you stay on top of risk factors that aren’t as easily controlled by lifestyle choices. Listening to your gut instincts and calling the doctor if you’re concerned is just as important.
Like many health issues, the risk of heart disease grows up as we age. But nothing’s set in stone. It’s never too late to proactively tackle the lifestyle changes that foster better heart health. Whatever your age, whatever your concern, get informed, and make good decisions. Your heart – and the people you love – will thank you.