The older we get, the more aches and pains we have to put up with. So, when does the aging process begin? Believe it or not, the process begins when we’re born. As we get older, our body changes, diseases begin to appear, especially during our senior years – aka our “golden years.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year and heart disease is the leading cause of death among seniors, 65 and over.
Most heart attacks are the result of coronary heart disease, a condition that clogs coronary arteries with fatty, calcified plaques. The step-by-step process that leads to a heart attack is not entirely understood. There are, however, controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. The controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes, stress and anger, and an inactive lifestyle (See more below). Uncontrollable risk factors include older age, being postmenopausal, and family history. According to the CDC, for most ethnicities in the United States, including African Americans, Hispanics, and whites; heart disease is the leading cause of death. For American Indians, Alaska Natives and Asians or Pacific Islanders, heart disease is also a devastating disease.
For women, high levels of estrogen are thought to protect those in the premenopausal stage fairly well. Keep in mind that the risk of heart attack increases significantly after menopause. A family history of heart disease can increase the risk in both men and women at earlier ages.
For our senior population, heart disease can be avoided by taking protective measures.
Many seniors do not know that they are at risk of heart disease. We tend to be more active when we’re young. However, as we age, our activities get reduced. We don’t move around as easy or as much as we did before. So, if we’re doing less, our food intake should also be reduced. Seniors must also reduce the number of fats and cholesterol in their diet. Because the body needs have reduced, the cholesterol or the bad fat gets deposited in various tissues and even in arteries blocking or narrowing those resulting in decreased blood flow to the heart. This situation can finally lead to a heart attack due to blockage of blood supply to the heart.
Why are people, particularly senior citizens with diabetes at increased risk for heart disease?
Diabetes is treatable, but even when sugar (glucose) levels are under control, the risk of heart disease increases. Why? According to the American Heart Association, people with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, usually have the following conditions that contribute to their risk of developing heart disease. These include:
- High blood pressure – High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for heart disease. There is a positive association between hypertension and insulin resistance. When people have hypertension and diabetes; which is a common combination, their risk for heart disease doubles.
- Abnormal cholesterol and high triglycerides – People with diabetes often have unhealthy cholesterol levels including high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and high triglycerides. This triad of poor lipid counts often occurs in patients with premature coronary heart disease.
- Obesity – Having excess body weight or obesity is a factor for heart disease and has been strongly associated with insulin resistance. Weight loss can improve cardiovascular risk, decrease insulin concentration and increase insulin sensitivity. Obesity and insulin resistance also have been associated with other risk factors, including high blood pressure.
- Lack of physical activity – Physical inactivity is another modifiable major risk factor for insulin resistance and heart disease. Exercising and losing weight can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes, reduce blood pressure and help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s likely that any type of moderate and/or vigorous intensity, aerobic physical activity; whether sports, household work, gardening or work-related physical activity, are similarly beneficial.
- Poorly controlled blood sugars (too high) or out of normal range – Diabetes can cause blood sugar to rise to dangerous levels. Medications may be needed to manage blood sugar.
- Smoking – Smoking puts individuals, whether or not they have diabetes, at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Learn how to kick the habit.
In addition to knowing the above risk factors, it is essential that you know the symptoms that are seen before the heart attack.
The most common symptom is discomfort in the chest. While some people may not have this symptom, they may have other symptoms such as pain or discomfort in the jaw, arms, shoulder, neck, or back; nausea/vomiting, feeling weak or unexplained/severe fatigue, feeling light-headed or faint, and shortness of breath.
It’s very important to recognize the signs of a heart attack and seek medical assistance immediately by calling 911. A person’s chances of surviving a heart attack are increased if emergency treatment is given as soon as possible.