As we get older, our risk of suffering from a variety of heart conditions increases. But learning about heart disease in elderly adults can make it possible to identify those problems as early as possible, take action to lower risk, or otherwise improve a person’s prognosis. Given the high stakes inherent to elderly heart health, it’s never too early to start familiarizing yourself with the most essential information.
Heart Disease in Elderly Adults
Heart disease typically results from the accumulation of a lifetime of poor lifestyle habits, including our diet and exercise. Combined with natural changes that occur to the body with aging, that cumulative damage is what makes heart disease most common in the elderly. In fact, about four out of five heart failure patients are 65 and up.
There are four stages of heart disease, each more severe than the last. At first, patients may have few symptoms or even none, but their risk of heart disorders is greatly elevated. For people who do experience early warning signs, they might include:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent coughing
- General fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling in the ankles
- Pain or tingling in the upper body
- Chest pain during activity
The severity grows with each stage and is usually not very difficult or dangerous to treat until end-stage heart disease. Someone in end-stage heart disease has accumulated significant damage to the heart, requiring surgery, transplant, or hospice. Prior to end-stages, heart disease can be quite manageable, especially if you start following a few heart-healthy tips for seniors.
Heart Valve Disease in Elderly Adults
Four separate valves are responsible for helping a heart keep blood flowing in the right direction. But if even one of those valves starts to have a problem, it can cause blood flow to the body to be disrupted. A leaking heart valve in elderly patients can be exceptionally dangerous without the appropriate treatment.
The appropriate treatment depends on what valve or valves are affected, and how severely. Some of the most common forms include regurgitation (leaky valves), stenosis (thickened/stiff valves) and atresia (lack of valve formation.) That means there are many significant risk factors, but some of the most common include high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes.
Having a family history of heart disease can also contribute to the risk of heart valve disease in elderly adults. But more than anything else, heart valve disease becomes far more common with age. Roughly 10% of the population over the age of 75 has degenerative abnormalities in the heart which increases their risk.
Early diagnosis and treatment are paramount because complications from heart valve disease include stroke, blood clots, heart failure, and even death. In severe cases, surgery may be required to repair or replace valve(s). And the multiple comorbidities that elderly people bring into heart surgery can greatly raise the risk of mortality.
Early warning signs heart valve disease include:
- Heart murmur
- Swollen ankles
- Shortness of breath while active or reclined
Congestive Heart Failure in Elderly Adults
Congestive heart failure isn’t a disease — it’s the result of other diseases wreaking havoc on the heart. With congestive failure, the heart has been weakened through a variety of comorbid conditions, and as a result, it can’t pump blood through the body at a normal rate.
That leads to fluid buildup within a variety of areas inside the body. Fluid around the heart and lungs in elderly people creates pressure on the heart and can reduce the availability of oxygen to the body. Congestive heart failure in the elderly is progressive, with the end-stage leading to heart failure.
Like with heart valve disease, your risk for congestive heart failure increases with age. However, you can reduce the risk by being proactive about your heart health. The most common cause of heart failure in the elderly is coronary artery disease. That’s why some of the best steps towards prevention include exercise, dietary changes, and quitting smoking.
Congestive heart failure life expectancy rates vary widely based on the health of the patient. About half of people with congestive heart failure will have an average life expectancy of five years. But the final stages of congestive heart failure in elderly people is more severe, with an average prognosis of six months or less.
Other Common Heart Conditions in Elderly Adults
A variety of changes to the heart occur with aging. The way the body’s electrical system activates the heart can change, leading to arrhythmia. Heart muscle can be weakened by thyroid disease or chemotherapy – the list goes on. But knowing some of the common threads between these conditions can help you identify a heart problem quicker.
For instance, coronary heart disease in elderly people involves damaged blood vessels struggling to supply your heart with essential oxygen and nutrients. The decreased blood flow can cause a heart attack. The signs of a heart attack in elderly people include:
- Chest pain
Rather than chest pain, women are more likely to experience jaw, shoulder, neck, or back discomfort. Understanding that these kinds of seemingly unrelated symptoms all point to a heart issue can be lifesaving.
Heart disease is dangerous when left untreated, but manageable when caught early. Encourage loved ones to avoid spending hours sitting down because physical activity is essential to heart health. Help them learn how to manage and monitor blood pressure, and to be on the lookout for rapid weight gain, which can indicate fluid retention.
Like with so many comorbid health problems, keeping cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes managed can make a big difference. It also helps to maintain a healthy weight with a heart-friendly diet. That means few added sugars, little sodium, and lots of fiber and whole grains. For example, a Mediterranean diet made for healthy aging.
Last but not least, encourage loved ones to quit smoking. Cigarettes damage arterial walls, and quitting can provide benefits regardless of your age. Taking these kinds of simple steps won’t just improve a person’s health, it may also improve their sense of wellbeing.