Health

How to Keep Your Heart Young for Longer

Most Americans have an older “heart age” than their actual age. If you are not familiar with the term “heart age,” it is the age of… Trista - February 13, 2022

Most Americans have an older “heart age” than their actual age. If you are not familiar with the term “heart age,” it is the age of your heart and blood vessels due to other risk factors for heart attack or stroke. Some elements are genetic or age-related, but others are totally within your control. The age is calculated based on things like age, blood pressure, cholesterol, diet, body fat, physical activity, and smoking status, to name a few. At any age, you can make your heart younger by adopting a healthier lifestyle and making just a few changes! Read on to learn more about what makes your heart older and what you can do to turn the clock backward.

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40. The Center for Disease Control says heart age varies by age, location, and even race.

Half of adult men and twenty percent of adult women in the United States have a heart that is five years older than their actual age. For black people, the age difference can go up to eleven years. That may, in part, be because black people face significantly higher rates of hypertension than white people (via Cleveland Clinic). Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Alabama are the five states with the highest percentage of adults aged 30 – 74 with heart ages five or more years older than their actual age. The states with the lowest heart ages are Utah, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii (via CDC). 

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39. Your heart adjusts to the needs of an older body as you age.

Your heart beats more than 100,000 times a day and pumps more than 1,800 gallons of blood through your blood vessels (via Very Well Health). It also adjusts the rate and force at which it pumps blood based on your activity level. Atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in arteries, can cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through narrower tubes. Cholesterol deposits and other fatty debris in the bloodstream cause this chronic disease.

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38. Cardiovascular disease risk increases with age.

As we get older, our heart has to work harder to compensate for clogged arteries, which can severely impact our quality of life. Our arteries tend to harden with age, no matter how healthy we are. Forty percent of deaths of adults between 65-74 are from heart disease, and that rate increases to 60 percent for those over 80 years old (via Very Well Health). In your 20s, the maximum heart rate is between 180 to 200 beats per minute but decreases to 145 for 80-year-olds. From age 20 to age 80, there is a 50 percent decrease in the overall ability for vigorous exercise, so it is best to train up the body while you can (via WAMU.org). 

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37. Smoking ages your heart tremendously.

According to the CDC, smoking is a significant cause of cardiovascular disease and is the single largest cause of death in the United States, causing over 800,000 people a year (pre-Covid-19). More than 16 million Americans have heart disease, and even people who smoke less than five cigarettes a day may show signs of early cardiovascular disease. In fact, even secondhand smoke can cause heart disease; more than 33,000 nonsmokers die every year from secondhand smoke exposure due to heart attacks and strokes. Smoking can lead to atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, or abdominal aortic aneurysms (via UCI Health).

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36. Weight plays a part in your heart’s age.

Being overweight means your heart has to work harder, which strains the muscle (via UCI Health). Even if you think you have earned the right to relax in your retirement years, a healthy lifestyle should still be a goal of yours. The more you move, the better your heart, lungs, mind, and body function. Carrying belly fat is a perilous factor; research shows that being active throughout the day has a more positive effect than working out after sitting all day (via Benenden). 

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35. Overeating can impact heart health in ways you may not even realize.

Overindulging in food and drink may seem like a treat once in a while, but if it is a regular practice, you should reconsider your eating habits (via UCI Health). Surprisingly, more people have severe heart attacks in December and January: the weeks following Christmas and New Year’s Day. A decrease in physical activity, emotional stress, and a heavy meal is an equation for increased heart attack risk. The science tracks: eating a lot of food makes the body shift blood to the digestive system instead of the heart, meaning any blockages in their heart arteries are receiving less attention. Overfull bellies can also lead to irregular heart rhythms, leading to potential heart attacks or cardiac arrest (via health.org).

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34. Alcohol consumption can impair more than just your judgment.

Although a report claims that moderate alcohol consumption can help protect against heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) cautions people not to drink alcohol for better heart health until they know more about the pros and cons of alcohol consumption. According to both the AHA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, men should have no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one drink per day. There is a clear link between regularly drinking alcohol and high blood pressure, which can strain the heart and lead to cardiovascular disease. 

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33. Stress is a killer.

Stress is a form of biochemical warfare we wage upon ourselves. There are more than 1,400 biochemical responses to stress, including increased blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels (via UCI Health). Chronic stress accelerates aging, which may be tolerable when we’re younger, but can be much harder to handle as we age because the hormones that help us manage stress are depleted. It also causes us to take on maladjusted coping mechanisms like smoking, drinking, overeating, and avoiding physical activity (via health.org).

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32. Poor nutrition choices have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.

Diets high in processed foods can lead to a higher risk of heart disease (via Cleveland Clinic). If you can’t keep yourself away from deep-fried foods, high-cholesterol red meats, high-fat dairy products, sugary drinks, cookies, pastries, candies, or other sweets, you need to reconsider your food choices (via UCI Health). Overeating is not the only dietary issue that can age your heart! 

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31. Diabetes is also a definite aging factor.

It stands to reason that if weight and food are factors, then, of course, diabetes won’t be too far behind (via UCI Health). Being at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if it’s because of genetics, is also a prominent risk factor for heart disease (via Cleveland Clinic). Keep reading to learn more details about your heart age and how you can keep your heart young. 

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30. As you age, your exercise capacity shrinks.

As the heart ages, it is less able to respond promptly to chemical messages from the brain. Researchers are not sure why the adjustment to increased activity lags with age. However, they know that the result is a limited ability to exercise compared to when you were younger (via UCI Health). This manifests as shortness of breath, indicating that oxygen-rich blood is not moving quickly enough through the body (via Cleveland Clinic).

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29. You can reduce your heart age by making some lifestyle changes.

Changing your routine can be very difficult, but it might be necessary if you want a healthier heart (via Cleveland Clinic). If you cannot commit to an entire lifestyle makeover, choose one or two significant factors that you know to increase your risk of heart disease and start there (via UCI Health). As those become easier, you can incorporate other changes slowly. It is never too late to improve! 

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28. Aim for a heart-healthy diet.

Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein are so much healthier for your heart than processed foods, preservatives, and sugary foods (via Harvard Health). If your goal is to reduce your heart age, you should consider what parts of your diet need to change: it could be weekend binging, the types of food you’re consuming, or something else entirely. If you want some good news, a recent study found that consuming a half-ounce to 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily is associated with cardiovascular health and a lower risk of stroke because of the flavonoids in the cacao plant (via UCI Health). So, a bite of chocolate every day is good for you!

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27. What is the Mediterranean diet?

Often referred to as the “heart-healthy diet,” it emphasizes a high number of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, plus moderate amounts of fish and poultry and healthy oils like olive oil (via Harvard Health). It limits red meats and eliminates added sugars, saturated fats, and excess sodium, all of which are linked to heart disease. Research finds that this diet can reduce triglycerides, making it a definite step up if you’re looking to make some changes in your diet (via Cleveland Clinic). 

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26. What is the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet?

Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude all meat from their diet but eat eggs and dairy. This plant-based diet can help prevent type-2 diabetes because of the increase in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, as well as the decrease in saturated and trans-fats (via Healthline). It can also increase blood sugar control and improve insulin sensitivity. When following a plant-based diet like the lacto-ovo diet, you should pay extra attention to your iron, protein, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acid levels (via Harvard Health). You may require additional dietary supplements. 

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25. Like any other muscle, you can exercise the heart and reverse some of its aging.

Dr. Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, explains that a sedentary lifestyle weakens the heart muscle (via Harvard Health). That, coupled with normal stiffening of the arteries that comes with aging, begins a harmful aging cycle. Exercise is the best way to slow this aging process. The standard recommendation for weekly exercise is 150 minutes of moderate level intensity, but to reverse your heart’s aging process, the kind of exercise you do can play a part. Interval exercise with a high heart rate seemed most beneficial in one 2018 study (via Hopkins Medicine). It is crucial to keep in mind that any exercise is a step in the right direction! 

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24. Aerobic exercise can improve circulation.

Improving circulation is a great goal, as it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, increases your overall fitness level, and helps your heart pump more regularly (via Harvard Health). Aerobic exercise also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. If you already have type 2 diabetes, it enables you to control your blood glucose levels. If you start an aerobic exercise regimen, you should exercise at least 30 minutes daily, five days a week. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, running, swimming, cycling, tennis, or other heart-pumping activities (via Hopkins Medicine). 

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23. Strength training has more of an impact on reducing fat.

Strength training, or resistance training, is ideal for those carrying body fat, a risk factor for heart disease. It reduces body fat and can create leaner muscle mass. A combination of strength training and aerobic exercise can increase HDL (or good cholesterol) and decrease LDL (or bad cholesterol). According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it is best to try an exercise routine of at least two nonconsecutive days per week of strength training, especially if combined with aerobic or cardio training (via WAMU.org). 

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22. Maintaining musculoskeletal health is essential during any exercise regimen.

Even though stretching and flexibility exercises don’t directly contribute to heart health, they benefit your musculoskeletal health and enable you to do activities that help your heart (via Hopkins Medicine). These exercises also help you maintain stability and prevent falls, which can cause other potential injuries. You should stretch before and after any other exercise as a warm up and cool down (via WAMU.org)

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21. If you have never exercised before, this is where you can start.

If you find yourself as an older adult starting to take an interest in your heart’s health but unsure of where to turn for fitness tips, try SilverSneakers. These classes are designed specifically for seniors and led by supportive instructors, and you can take them from the comfort of your own home (via SilverSneakers). For most seniors, the program is included in your Medicare Plan, making it an utterly no-cost resource to you. 

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20. Exercise strengthens your heart in more ways than one.

Consistent physical activity can strengthen the heart muscle and make recovery after a procedure easier (via Cleveland Clinic). Some patients go to cardiac rehabilitation or physical therapy even after a cardiac operation. Patients do better after surgery if they are active. If a person is active and cuts their risk factors like smoking and limiting their processed food intake, they will recover more quickly (via Shore Medical Center).

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19. If you’re a smoker, quit. 

Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who have never smoked (via CDC). Smoking damages the lining of arteries and leads to arteriosclerosis. Just one year after smoking cessation, your risk of heart attack can be reduced by half! Smoking increases triglycerides, lowers HDL, increases the risk of blood clots, and of course, increases the risk of cancer. Even occasional smoking can damage the heart, so make sure you don’t give into social smoking once you quit (via Benenden). Many smokers do not quit on their first attempt, so don’t let that discourage you! 

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18. Make a “Quit Smoking” plan.

The first step in quitting is preparation. Make a “quit” plan to boost your chances of success. To start, choose a “quit date” in the next week or two and mark it on your calendar. Let the people in your life know so they can support you. Estimate how much money you can save from quitting this habit in one year – you’ll be amazed at what it will add up to! Next, think about your reasons for stopping. Whether it is for your health, your loved ones, or any other reasons, make that your motivator through the next few months (via smokefree.gov).

Similarly, you should consider what your smoking triggers are, whether emotional (stress, happiness, etc.), everyday triggers (work, coffee, break time), or social triggers (hanging out with friends, drinking alcohol). Make a conscious plan for how you will deal with cravings until the feeling passes, whether it is a breathing exercise, texting a support buddy, going for a jog, or playing a game, for example. And last but not least, choose the right tools for you. That could be as easy as downloading an app, asking your doctor for tips, talking to a trained counselor, or even calling a tobacco quit line

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17. You should reduce saturated fats and “bad cholesterol.”

Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, increasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease. You can find saturated fats in fried foods, sweets, processed meats, cream, and cheese. Your total cholesterol levels should be 5mmol/L or less for healthy adults, and if you are at high risk, they should be at 4mmol/L. LDL levels should be 3mmol/L for healthy adults and 2mmol/L for at-risk adults (via Benenden). An ideal HDL level is above 1mmol/L, as a lower level can increase your risk of heart disease (via BHF.org). If your cholesterol is very high and your lifestyle changes are not enough, your doctor might suggest statins (a type of medication) to reduce their levels.

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16. Control your blood pressure.

Ideally, your blood pressure should be between 90/60 and 120/80, and people consider it high if it is regularly measured over 140/90. If you are not familiar with what exactly blood pressure is, it refers to the pressure in the heart when it pumps out blood around the body over the pressure when the heart is resting. With age, weight gain, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, and increased salt intake, blood pressure rises naturally. Blood pressure is also genetic, so you may have inherited a tendency for higher blood pressure even if you avoid all the risk factors (via The Guardian). 

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15. Drink alcohol in moderation or less.

You already know the risks of drinking excessively if you have made it this far. If you are ready to limit your alcohol intake, many strategies and tools are at your disposal. A critical first step in giving up this habit is identifying why you are doing it. Take the time to review how much you drink too. If you are not ready to completely give up drinking, that’s ok! It is better to consider developing a more mindful relationship with alcohol without complete sobriety (via Healthline). Like quitting smoking, you need to involve your loved ones and find a strong support network. Change your environment and your usual routines. For example, if you usually tend to drink at a particular time of day or a specific place, try breaking that pattern and creating new ones. Prioritize your wellness and make time for self-care. 

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14. Managing your stress can be easier than you think. 

Figuring out how stress affects you is crucial in figuring out how to diffuse its impact in your life. One way to try avoiding stress is exercising regularly (via heart.org). It can relieve stress, tension, anxiety, and depression, in addition to the physical effects on the body. Try spending time with loved ones – they’re critical in everyone’s self-care journey. If possible, make time to explore a new hobby that can be fun and distract you from negative thoughts. Healthcare professionals can also help you to find ways to manage your stress (via UCI Health).

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13. Yoga is a great way to destress.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that alternative treatments, like yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and meditation help combat stress. Yoga therapy includes movement, breathing practices, meditation, and lifestyle modifications to balance physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and energetic levels (via UCI Health). It increases energy levels, relieves pain, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, and improves overall health and well-being. It can even lower blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and heart rates, making it very effective for reducing your heart’s age (via health.org). 

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12. Acupuncture may sound crazy, but it can have positive health benefits. 

UCLA researchers discovered that acupuncture could reduce stress and improve heart function. Though we won’t get into all of the study’s methodology, acupuncture can stabilize the body’s two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (via WebMD). Furthermore, the studies show it acupuncture can help reduce high blood pressure and reduce the risk of arrhythmias (via Garden ACU). 

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11. Tai Chi can boost your heart health and make it younger. 

Tai Chi involves a series of graceful, gentle movements that can increase your heart rate while soothing your mind. It is a low-impact way to improve balance, flexibility, and breathing (via Cleveland Heart Lab). A recent study found that Tai Chi improved stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms and decreased blood pressure and overall health (via UCI Health). Keep reading to learn more about your heart age and how to have a young heart. 

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10. Meditation is not just a “new age” trend.

Mindfulness and meditation can increase your immune system’s function, decrease pain, reduce inflammation, and help with depression and anxiety symptoms (via UCI Health). It takes work to focus your attention, and the results are not immediate, which is why so many people struggle with it. The concept of meditation may be simple, but achieving it is not. To start meditating, get in a comfortable, relaxed, alert position. Focus on your breath with each inhale and exhale. When your mind wanders (and it will!), bring your attention back to the breath. If you need help with meditation, many free apps can help you practice this useful skill (via health.org). 

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9. Practice 4-7-8 breathing for a quick destressing exercise.

All holistic stress relief techniques like meditation, Tai Chi, and yoga involve mindful breathing exercises. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is precisely what it sounds like: Inhale for a four-count, hold for a seven-count, and exhale for an eight-count (via WebMD). Repeat this a few times – you’ll notice that you are immediately calmer. You might even feel a bit more lightheaded at first, but that will pass. Mindful breathing exercises can produce a relaxation response. Humans have stress responses, and everyday stresses increasingly trigger them. Breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 breathing interrupt the stress response with a profound sense of rest, reduced anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and even improved sleep (via UCI Health).

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8. The connection between depression and heart disease.

The link between depression and heart disease goes both ways. Some people who have no history of depression may become depressed after a heart attack or experiencing cardiac failure. People with depression and no previous heart disease issues seem to develop heart disease at higher rates than the general population (via Hopkins Medicine). Treating depression is as important as treating any other medical illness. The first step to addressing it is to consult a mental health professional. It is also essential to prioritize your physical health. This means getting enough quality sleep, quitting smoking, minimizing alcohol intake, exercising regularly, and eating healthy foods (via UIHC.org).

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7. Get a health check annually, at a minimum.

A heart checkup is critical to discovering any signs or potential risk factors leading to heart disease (via Healthline). The earlier you get checked out, the less the chances are of any disease progressing. Doctors may screen for a family history of heart disease LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. They might also check blood pressure, glucose, C-Reactive protein levels (CRP), and abdominal aorta measurements (via Manhattan Cardiology).

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6. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor any questions.

It is essential to ask your doctor questions to learn more about your risk for heart disease and how to prevent it during your checkup. You can also know what to do if you already have a heart problem (via The National Institute of Aging). Questions should be about your level of risk for heart disease. Ask what your cholesterol numbers are and what your blood pressure is. Inquire whether your weight is healthy. Learn more about your blood sugar levels or what other screening tests you should take. You can ask how much physical activity you need and what kind of diet you need to follow (via The National Institute of Health).

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5. Some heart disease indicators may require further testing.

In addition to regular checkups, your doctor may recommend an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). This test looks at the electrical activity in your heart. A chest x-ray can show whether you have an enlarged heart or lungs with any fluid buildup in them; both could be signs of heart disease (via The National Institute of Aging). Your doctor may also recommend a blood test for brain natriuretic peptides (BNP), a hormone that increases production during heart failure. Suppose a cardiologist wants to examine your heart or heart valve’s level of functionality. In that case, they may order an echocardiogram, which is a test that uses sound waves to create images of your heart (via The National Institute of Health). 

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4. Don’t obsess over the numbers.

Heart age is vital to think about, but do not let it consume your mind and worry you too much. Even if you are completely healthy, genetics may play a part in your figurative heart age. While the advice on heart age is generally good to consider, keep in mind that it is just a risk score, and your heart age does not predict what will happen to you (via The Guardian). Keep reading to learn how to cope with your heart age and what to look for in a heart attack.

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3. Do you know what the signs of a heart attack are?

A heart attack happens when the heart’s blood flow is blocked. Common signs include chest discomfort, especially in the left side (via Marshfield Clinic). Also, uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain, discomfort in the back, neck, jaw, or stomach, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, dizziness, arm numbness, and unexplained fatigue. Not everyone will experience all symptoms, but it is crucial to get them checked out if you experience any of them (via heart.org

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2. Don’t ignore changes in how you feel.

People often think of heart attack signs as the cliched clutching of the arm, but they actually can develop over hours, days, or even weeks (via health.org). Early signs of heart attacks exhibit symptoms of fatigue, disturbed sleep, shortness of breath, indigestion, and anxiety up to several weeks before their heart attack (via Marshfield Clinic). It is critical to discuss any significant changes in your health with your doctor or if existing health issues are bothering you more than usual. 

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1. There are many resources and institutions for heart health. 

For more information about heart health, consider contacting one of the institutions. Contact the American Heart Association at heart.org, at 800-242-8721, or inquiries@heart.org. You can reach the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at 301-592-8573, nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov, or www.nhlbi.nih.gov. Or get the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) to help at 800-860-8747 or 866-569-1162 (TTY), at healthinfo@niddk.nih.gov, and www.niddk.nih.gov. MedlinePlus, a service of the NIH’s National Library of Medicine, can be accessed at www.medlineplus.gov and is a great online resource for patients and their families and friends. If you are a senior trying to quit smoking, visit Smokefree60+, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, which can be reached at 877-448-7848 (or (877-44U-QUIT), cancergovstaff@mail.nih.gov, or www.60plus.smokefree.gov.

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