February is American Heart Month and an opportunity for a check-up on your knowledge about heart healthy aging. Did you know that certain natural changes take place in the heart as we grow older? Some of the changes are normal but, over time, can result in disease that damages blood vessels and the heart.
As we get older, our heart may get smaller. The number of heart muscle cells decreases with age and some will degenerate. Heart valves may thicken and narrow resulting in decreased blood flow, chest pain and shortness of breath. Arteries can thicken and become less pliant, leading to high blood pressure. The electrical system that causes the heart to beat may change or work less efficiently.
Things you can’t control, like your family history, might also increase your risk. If you do have a chronic illness like high blood pressure, be sure to take your medication and properly manage the condition. Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms – that’s why regular checkups with a healthcare provider are important.
The good news is that leading a heart healthy lifestyle might help you avoid or delay serious illness. There are a lot of steps you can take at any age to keep your heart healthy. Try to be more physically active. If you smoke, quit. It’s never too late to get some benefit from quitting. Follow a heart healthy diet. Choose low-fat foods and those that are low in salt. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and foods high in fiber like those made from whole grains. Try to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Studies are now confirming the contributions of a positive state of mind to heart healthy aging. Researchers at Yale University found that older people exposed to positive ideas about aging lowered their blood pressure under mild stress, while those exposed to negative ideas saw sharp increases in their blood pressure.
Other factors found to contribute to a positive state of mind as we grow older include a happy marriage or long-term relationship, a regular daily routine, fun hobbies, a feeling of financial security, close friends, the ability to laugh easily, a satisfactory sex life, and an optimistic outlook on the future.
Studies also confirm that pet companionship has health benefits. Pets can lower our heart rate, decrease our blood pressure, and increase overall feelings of happiness.
So it may turn out that “Don't worry, be happy" is more than just a song or expression. It may be the key to living a long and heart-healthy life.