April 6, 2021

How is the Cardiovascular System Affected by Aging?

Written by: Youssef Soliman, MBChB
Reviewed by: Mubashar Rehman, PHD

A Journey to the Anatomy of our Cardiovascular System

Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death in the world [1]. The cardiovascular system consists of 2 components: the heart and the blood vessels that contain the blood pumped by the heart.

The heart pumps blood to all over the body and it consists of 4 chambers: two atria and two ventricles. Muscles form these chambers.

These muscles contract and deliver blood to the rest of the body. Many diseases, either related to aging or other things, can affect your heart muscles.

 


Heart, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The four heart chambers are separated by valves. You have four valves: mitral, tricuspid, aortic, and pulmonary. The most affected valve in age-related heart disease is the aortic valve.

 

Heart Valves, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Once blood leaves the heart, it enters the blood vessels to be carried to the rest of your organs.

You have three types of blood vessels:  arteries, veins, and capillaries. Arteries deliver blood from the heart to the organs; veins deliver blood from your organs to the heart, and capillaries are tiny blood vessels responsible for the diffusion of nutrients and the exchange of gases between tissues and blood.

With age, your blood vessels become hardened and thickened, leading to various diseases, including hypertension, also known as the silent killer.

 

 

 

 

Age-Related changes to our Cardiovascular System

Cardiovascular aging is inevitable. Let’s examine the most common age-related conditions.

Molecular Changes

In older hearts, there are many molecular changes like degeneration or fatty infiltration of the heart muscles. Accumulation of several pigments like lipofuscin is also seen in older hearts.

These changes together can affect cells’ activity, protein synthesis and increase their degeneration.

Changes Affecting your Valves

The most common age-related disease affecting cardiac valves is aortic stenosis, which means narrowing of the aortic valve. This happens because, with age, this valve becomes calcified and has lots of deposits.

The aortic valves are responsible for allowing blood to flow to the aorta and the rest of your body. If this valve is affected, blood doesn’t flow well to your organs. Consequently, you get symptoms related to decreased blood flow like syncope and lightheadedness. This also can affect blood flow to the heart leading to chest pain with exertion.

Symptoms of aortic stenosis are progressive and don’t appear suddenly. You may require surgery if symptoms are severely affecting your everyday lifestyle.

Changes Affecting the Heart Muscle

With age, the heart muscle becomes less compliant and maybe infiltrated with amyloid deposition making it hard for the heart to contract. This can also affect the pumping capacity of your heart.

If you have uncontrolled hypertension, hypertrophy (enlargement) of your heart muscles is also possible. Many people may think that this is a good thing. Unfortunately, in older hearts, this can severely affect the heart’s ability to contract and lead to heart failure.

 


Hypertrophic, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Changes Affecting the Blood Vessels

Your blood vessels should be elastic to sustain good blood pressure. With age, blood vessels become less flexible and more rigid. This leads to elevated blood pressure (dangerous) and compromised blood flow to different body parts like your distal limbs.

If you follow an unhealthy diet, you have an increased risk for even more stiffening and hardening. This is because a diet rich in unhealthy fats increases atherosclerosis, which accumulates fats inside the blood vessels, making them stiffer. All these things can lead to hypertension, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.

Varicose veins, more common in women, also develop. They occur because the valves inside your leg veins become less competent. This leads to blood accumulation and leg swelling caused by varicose veins.

Changes Affecting the Electrical System of the Heart

The electrical system of the heart, also known as the conduction system, is composed of self-automated cells responsible for generating electricity that signals your heart muscles to pump. 

In aging hearts, the number of these self-automated cells decreases in number; there is also fat accumulation around them, leading to their signaling blockage. These changes can be manifested as abnormal heart rhythms and ECG changes. 

 


conduction heart;, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Cardiovascular Disease

In addition to cardiovascular aging, cardiovascular diseases can be due to lifestyle changes. We will examine some of the common conditions, risk factors, and what science says about avoiding cardiovascular diseases.

 

Overview

Disease Symptoms

Arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat)
Chest pain, discomfort, or pressure
A “fluttering” feeling in the chest (palpitations)
Fainting or nearly fainting (syncope)
Heart Attack Chest pain, discomfort, or pressure
Left shoulder or arm pain
Cold sweat
Paleness
Nausea
Heart Failure Persistent wheezing or cough
A “fluttering” feeling in the chest (palpitations)
Shortness of breath
Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, abs, or neck veins
Stroke The most common symptoms are a sudden weakness of the face, arm, or leg (typically on only one side of the body), facial drooping, and slurred speech

How Not to Die from Cardiovascular Diseases

 

Diets & Foods

Consumption of more than three servings of fruits and vegetables/day lowers triglycerides by approximately 0.10 mmol/L (9 mg/dL) and diastolic blood pressure by about two mmHg. [3]

Including foods such as soybeans, nuts, whole grains, and fish, and adopting healthy dietary patterns such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Mediterranean diet benefit triglycerides and raise HDL-C levels [3].

Specifically for LDL-C, also known as bad cholesterol (which plays a role in CVD development), safflower, rapeseed, and sunflower oil were associated with reducing LDL-C [4].

 

Supplements

Cocoa, nitrates, Fish oil, garlic, and fiber help with overall heart health, and folic acid (Vitamin B9) and B-complex vitamins have moderate-quality evidence for decreasing the risk of stroke [5].

 

Exercise

We can’t stress that enough, but exercise lowers the risk of chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia. It also results in a decreased risk of death from heart diseases and stroke. It can prevent cardiovascular aging. A 30-minutes jogging every day can be a game-changer!

Conclusion

Nothing stays the same as well as your heart. Heart aging is a complex process that involves interaction between environmental factors, genetics, and chronic diseases.  The heart muscles, valves, and even the conduction system can all be affected due to aging. However, healthy dietary choices, exercise, and the right supplementation can reduce your risk of heart disease and, as a result, halt the aging process of your heart.

References

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death
  2. Steenman, M., &Lande, G. (2017). Cardiac aging and heart disease in humans. Biophysical reviews, 9(2), 131–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12551-017-0255-9
  3. Toh, D., Koh, E. S., & Kim, J. E. (2020). Incorporating healthy dietary changes in addition to an increase in fruit and vegetable intake further improves the status of cardiovascular disease risk factors: A systematic review, meta-regression, and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition reviews78(7), 532–545. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuz104
  4. Schwingshackl, L., Bogensberger, B., Benčič, A., Knüppel, S., Boeing, H., & Hoffmann, G. (2018). Effects of oils and solid fats on blood lipids: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. Journal of lipid research59(9), 1771–1782. https://doi.org/10.1194/jlr.P085522
  5. Jenkins, D., Spence, J. D., Giovannucci, E. L., Kim, Y. I., Josse, R. G., Vieth, R., Sahye-Pudaruth, S., Paquette, M., Patel, D., Blanco Mejia, S., Viguiliouk, E., Nishi, S. K., Kavanagh, M., Tsirakis, T., Kendall, C., Pichika, S. C., &Sievenpiper, J. L. (2021). Supplemental Vitamins and Minerals for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Treatment: JACC Focus Seminar. Journal of the American College of Cardiology77(4), 423–436. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2020.09.619
Article written by Youssef Soliman, MBChB
Dr. Youssef Soliman has a deep passion for writing. He always loves to explain complex medical topics to laypeople. Youssef has over 1.6 Million views on his Quora account and thousands of followers who love to read his articles. He enjoys digging into the nitty-gritty of the most complex medical topics and come up with simplified, visual explanations for them. He also has interests in nutrition and biochemistry food because he believes that we are what we eat, and many diseases like heart disease are all related to what we eat and our lifestyle. This is why he wants to specialize to become an interventional cardiologist.

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