Diseases & Conditions

Aging Changes in the Heart and Blood Vessels


Overview & Description

Aging changes in the heart and blood vessels are normal changes that occur as a person gets older.

What is the information for this topic?

In a healthy individual without heart disease, the heart stays the same size or may increase slightly in size with age. The number of heart muscle cells decreases with age. Fat and other material is also deposited into the heart muscle as it ages. These deposits cause heart muscle cells to degenerate slightly. The heart muscle can become stiffer. These changes reduce the strength of the heart and the amount of blood the heart can pump. In addition, the walls of the heart thicken. This decreases the amount of blood the chambers of the heart can hold. The number of blood vessels that lead to the heart also decreases. This reduces the amount of oxygen that can reach the heart muscle.

The valves that control the direction of the blood flow in the heart also change. They may gradually thicken and become more difficult to move with age. Calcium deposits in the valves may help cause this change. Heart murmurs, or abnormal sounds, may result from these valve changes.

The maximum heart rate that can be achieved is reduced with age because of a decrease in the number of cells that control the heart rate. This and the reduced ability of the heart to pump blood cause a decreased exercise tolerance in elderly people.

The natural electrical system that causes the heart to beat also changes with age. Fibrous tissue and fat deposits may develop along the electrical system pathway. This is rarely a problem in people without heart disease. It may cause certain changes that are seen on a heart tracing or EKG. Rarely, problems with the heart rate may occur because of natural degeneration of this area of the heart. The amount of blood the heart pumps over a period of time and the heart rate when a person is at rest usually do not change. After a period of stress, the heart rate and blood pressure may take longer to return to normal.

The arteries of the body naturally become less elastic or stretchable with age. This is different from blocked arteries that can cause heart attacks. Less elastic and stiffer arteries can cause an increase in the blood pressure with age. The heart has to pump harder to get blood to the rest of the body. Blood pressure is also thought to be affected by environmental factors, such as heredity and lifestyle. An abnormally high blood pressure is usually treated with medicines, however, even though it may be "natural." Treatment has been shown to help reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

The baroreceptor cells, which regulate the blood pressure when there are changes in activity, become less responsive as a person ages. Orthostatic hypotension, a condition that causes the blood pressure to drop when changing from a prone position to a sitting or standing position, may result from the changes in the baroreceptor cells. This condition can cause dizziness. The dizziness is decreased if a person sits up slowly and waits a few minutes before standing. There may also be a decrease in the amount of blood pumped to various organs of the body, including the brain and heart.

Many other heart and blood vessel problems commonly seen in older people are not considered normal. Blockage of the arteries, heart attacks, and strokes are common causes of illness and death in the elderly. These can often be prevented, however, and are not considered a part of the normal aging process.

Regular exercise can delay and even reverse many changes in the heart and blood vessels that occur with age. A healthcare provider can provide information regarding a fitness or exercise program for the individual. Following a heart-healthy diet, reducing coronary risk factors, and seeking regular healthcare can reduce the risk of heart problems as a person ages.


Attribution

Author:James Broomfield, MD
Date Written:
Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
Edit Date:09/28/01
Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Date Reviewed:09/27/01