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February Focus: Heart Health

February is the month when people turn their thoughts to love. For people over the age of 65, it is a good idea to practice some self-love, particularly when it comes to heart health. People in this age group are likelier to have a heart attack, a stroke, or develop coronary heart disease or heart failure. Not only are these heart conditions potentially deadly, but they also carry the risk of permanent disability.

The heart and blood vessels change with aging. As an individual grows old, the heart is unable to beat as fast as it once did during physical activity or stressful events. Aging affects the arteries, too. One common change is hardening of the arteries, or arteriosclerosis. This condition causes high blood pressure, or hypertension. A build-up of plaque in the arteries reduces blood flow to the heart and leads to heart disease. When these conditions are present, the heart muscle can become weakened and/or damaged, resulting in heart failure. Heart damage can be caused by heart attacks, long-standing hypertension and diabetes, and chronic heavy alcohol use.

Though age plays a big role in certain risk factors, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and alcoholism are also contributing factors. Sometimes prevention is the best medicine, and changes to diet, exercise, and personal habits are beneficial. Doctors recommend a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables with lean meats and limited amounts of healthy fats like olive oil. Increasing physical activity and giving up smoking and drinking alcohol are beneficial to heart health. If these measures are taken, and a person is still having heart problems, medications can be prescribed by a physician.

Early heart disease can be hard to detect because it can be present without symptoms, or the symptoms can be so slight that they are not seen as a cause for concern. That is why regular checkups with your doctor are important. The National Institute on Aging suggests you contact your doctor right away if you feel any chest pain, pressure, or discomfort. However, chest pain is a less common sign of heart disease as it progresses, so be aware of other symptoms. Tell your doctor if you have:

  • Pain, numbness, and/or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back

  • Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying flat

  • Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest

  • Lightheadedness

  • Dizziness

  • Confusion

  • Headaches

  • Cold sweats

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Tiredness or fatigue

  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck

  • Reduced ability to exercise or be physically active

  • Problems doing your normal activities


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