What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease in the elderly is a term that is used to describe medical conditions that affect the heart’s health. Heart disease might include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, blood vessel conditions, and heart defects.
Understanding how the heart works can also help you understand what happens with heart disease. With a healthy heart, the heart will pump oxygen to the body’s cells. It uses four chambers to take in and send back blood and oxygen throughout the body. An effectively working heart coordinates with each of the chambers.
When heart disease occurs, some portion of the cardiovascular process is affected. This can lead to a risk of heart failure, as well as problematic symptoms. The average age of heart disease is just 64.5 for men and 70.3 for women, making it important to understand the risks and potential prevention methods as you age.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Knowing the causes, symptoms, and risk factors can help you receive treatment for heart disease faster. Timely and effective treatment is important in reducing the mortality rates of patients with cardiovascular diseases.
What are the Causes of Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a medical condition that tends to worsen over time. When the heart is unable to keep up with the workload, it will accommodate in another way, either by enlarging, developing increased muscle mass, or working faster. Other parts of the body can also become affected. With the increased pressure, the blood vessels will narrow, and the body might divert blood from less-important parts.
While there are many things that can lead to heart disease, age will increase your chances of cardiovascular disease. As the body gets older, the blood vessels become thicker, and muscle cells migrate. Minimal bodily changes can affect the important coordination of the heart, leading to cardiovascular conditions.
Older adults are also more likely to have a buildup of plaque in the arteries and blood vessels, which can lead to blockages. When blood flow is blocked, the patient is at risk of other heart complications.
Other factors that can cause heart disease include:
- Poor diet: A long history of a poor diet and lack of exercise can increase your chances of obesity, which can also force the heart to work harder, leading to many coronary cardiovascular conditions.
- High cholesterol: High cholesterol levels means that there is too much of it in your blood. When cholesterol builds up in the blood, it can lead to atherosclerosis, a type of heart disease.
- Drug or alcohol usage: High usage of drugs and alcohol can cause the heart’s tissues to inflame. Excessive inflammation over time will damage the heart.
- Smoking: Smoking causes a buildup of plaque within the arteries. Over time, this buildup can lead to blood clots, blocking the blood flow.
- Hypertension: Left untreated, hypertension can lead to heart disease, especially in elderly patients.
- Diabetes: Diabetes mellitus that is not effectively managed can damage the bodies’ blood vessels and nerves.
- Genetics: Other medical conditions or genetics can lead to unusual heart valves. If the heart’s valves don’t work as they should, it can increase the chances of developing an aortic heart condition.
- Untreated sleep apnea: When sleep apnea is untreated, the sudden drops in oxygen levels increase blood pressure and can lead to heart disease.
Many of the causes of heart disease can be controlled through lifestyle changes. It is important to be aware of the most common causes to take action to prevent coronary disease.
What are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?
The symptoms of heart disease will depend on the type of heart condition. But, common symptoms of heart disease in the elderly include:
- Severe fatigue
- Chest pain
- Chest congestion
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Fluid retention
- Dizziness or overall weakness
- Rapid and irregular heartbeats
- Pain in the neck or back
It is also important to note that some patients might not experience any symptoms. There are also some patients who might notice symptoms intermittently. Some symptoms, like shortness of breath or angina pectoris, can indicate that emergency medical treatment is needed.
How Is Heart Disease Treated?
Fortunately, there are many effective treatments available for heart disease. However, the specific type of treatment will depend on the type of cardiovascular disease and how severe the symptoms are.
Treatment options might include:
- Medication management: Medications are one of the most common treatment methods when dealing with cardiovascular disorders. In addition to pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medications might also be used to control symptoms.
- Surgical intervention: Depending on the type of heart disease and the severity of it, surgical intervention might be an option.
- Lifestyle changes: Lifestyle changes are an important step in overcoming heart disease. Patients will need to eat a diet low in cholesterol and maintain an active lifestyle.
You can further discuss your treatment options with your medical doctor.
Surgical Options for Heart Disease
Surgery might be an option for you, which you can discuss with your doctor. Surgical options available for heart disease include:
- Coronary artery bypass grafting: With a CABG, your doctor will re-route the blood flow around an artery that is blocked.
- Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT): With cardiac resynchronization therapy, a pacemaker is installed into the body that resyncs the heart’s beats. It sends electric impulses to each of the chambers.
- Heart transplant: A heart transplant might be an option when all other types of surgical intervention are no longer an option.
- Heart valve repair surgery: Heart valve repair or replacement surgery involves the repair or replacement of the heart’s valves.
- Aneurysm repair: You might need an aneurysm repair if the artery walls weaken and develop a blocked bulge.
- Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD): An ICD is used with patients with arrhythmia. With ICD, a pacemaker is installed into the body to mimic the heart’s beats in order to regulate them.
- Infarct exclusion surgery: Infarct exclusion surgery is often used in cases of heart failure when scar tissue is at risk of leading to an aneurysm.
- Ventricular assist: With a ventricular assist procedure, a mechanical pump is installed into the body to help support the heart’s functioning.
Surgical treatment is usually an option for more severe cases of heart disease with significant risks. Your doctor might recommend a few non-surgical treatment options to improve your condition before considering surgery. They might recommend that you work with a nutritionist to follow a diet. If you currently smoke, medications, or therapy that relieves the craving might also be used. Depending on your health, it might also be useful to work with a physical therapist or personal trainer who can help you develop a workout routine.
When to See a Doctor for Heart Disease
Heart disease is considered a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical care. If you have any symptoms of heart disease or heart failure, it is important to work with your medical doctor. If you experience chest pain out of nowhere or the symptoms of stroke, call 911 or go to the emergency department.
Heart Disease Diagnosis
If you believe that you might have a heart condition, one of the first things that you will want to do is to consult with your medical doctor. During your initial checkup, your doctor will evaluate your health history. They will request information about the current symptoms you’re experiencing, as well as your family history. They might also ask you questions about your previous medical history and your lifestyle.
Then, depending on your physical exam, they might order additional tests to determine your likeliness of heart disease. Cardiovascular tests might include:
- Blood: Blood tests will look at your risk of cardiovascular disease. It will include a lipid panel, hs-CRP, and Lp(a) testing. They might also look at your proteins to determine prior damage to the heart’s muscles. Depending on your symptoms, they might also complete a B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) blood test, which is only present with heart failure. The BNP is then turned into N-terminal pro-brain natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP).
- Stress test: A stress test measures how well your heart works when it is under stress.
- X-ray: Imaging, including chest x-rays, will allow the doctor to look at the overall size of your heart. This imaging also allows them to determine if there is any fluid buildup or damage to the heart’s valves. Other imaging, like MRIs, might also be used.
- Doppler echocardiography: Using an ultrasound, the Doppler echocardiography will measure the heart’s speed and direction of blood flow.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG): An EKG measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat.
- Cardiac catheterization: Using a tiny catheter, the cardiac catheterization procedure gives your doctor a better view of the heart and arteries.
- Myocardial biopsy: A heart biopsy might be needed to analyze the heart’s tissues.
Your doctor might use a few, or many, of these diagnostic options when determining whether or not you have heart disease.
Medications for Heart Disease
Medications will be an important part of your heart disease treatment. Available medications include:
- ACE inhibitors: Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors work by stopping the production of angiotensin, which can cause the blood vessels to constrict.
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers or inhibitors (ARBs): ARBs work by reducing blood pressure.
- Anticoagulants: Anticoagulants are often used to decrease the risk of a heart attack or stroke. They work by preventing the buildup of plaque.
- Beta-blockers: Beta-blockers are often used to treat high blood pressure and to prevent the risk factors of a heart attack.
- Cholesterol-lowering medications: High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, so medications to reduce cholesterol levels are commonly used.
- Digitalis: Digitalis medications increase the calcium levels in the heart, encouraging your heart to pump better.
- Nitrates: Nitrates work to prevent cardiovascular and aortic problems by widening the blood vessels so blood can flow freely.
Depending on your symptoms and condition, your doctor might consider other types of medications. For example, over-the-counter medications or supplements might be used in addition to those listed.
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Heart disease and failure are two of the most common medical conditions among elderly patients. You might be at an increased risk of coronary heart disease if you have the following:
- High blood pressure (Hypertension): High blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Hypertension indicates that the pressure in the blood vessels is too high. This means that the heart is forced to work harder, which can lead to coronary diseases.
- Age: Your risk of developing heart disease increases after you reach the age of 65.
- Genetics: Genetic heart defects, like congenital heart disease, can lead to an increased risk of developing other types of heart disease in older adults. Other genetics, like race and gender, can also affect the prevalence of heart disease in older adults.
- Smoking: Smoking leads to a buildup of plaque, restricting blood flow, and often leading to cardiovascular disease.
- Poor diet: Poor diet, especially diets that are high in fatty foods with a lot of cholesterol, can lead to heart disease.
- Lack of exercise: Frequent exercise is important in preventing the buildup of plaque and in keeping the heart muscles strong.
- Uncontrolled diabetes mellitus: Diabetes that is not controlled can lead to many different types of heart disease.
- Chronic diseases: Untreated chronic diseases can also affect the heart’s health, leading to a higher prevalence of heart disease conditions.
Understanding your cardiovascular risks can help you take the steps that you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle and prevent a worsening of the condition.
Heart Disease Prevention
Heart disease is often a result of untreated medical conditions and a poor lifestyle. There are many steps that you can take to prevent heart disease, which include:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Obesity and long-term diets with high sodium can significantly increase the risk of developing heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a well-balanced meal, exercising frequently, and getting enough sleep are important.
- Avoid smoking: Smoking significantly increases the prevalence of heart disease, while also leading to higher mortality rates.
- Avoid high alcohol consumption: Drinking will lead to high blood pressure, further putting your cardiovascular health at risk.
- Find ways to de-stress: High amounts of stress, especially when left untreated, can also increase your blood pressure.
- Consider vaccinations: Research shows that some vaccinations could potentially protect the heart from certain heart diseases.
One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is to keep up with your routine medical checkups. Your doctor will help you determine if you are at an increased risk of developing heart disease. They will continue to monitor your condition and make recommendations on ways to prevent heart disease. Prevention is also important in preventing the symptoms of heart disease from getting worse.
Special Concerns for Elderly Patients
Heart disease is a serious medical concern, regardless of your age. However, seniors might have more concern because of the increased chance of other co-occurring disorders. Elderly patients are more likely to have heart-related conditions like coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease. Also, as the body ages, blood flow slows down, which can lead to an increase in aortic conditions.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
You can prepare for your upcoming medical checkup by asking these important questions about heart disease:
- What type of heart disease do I have?
- What is your recommended treatment?
- What lifestyle changes should I make?
- How severe is my condition?
- Do I need to make any dietary changes?
- What symptoms do I need to be aware of for an emergency?
- What steps can I take to prevent my condition from worsening?
- Do you recommend that I see a cardiology specialist?
Managing Heart Disease
With the guidance of your medical doctor, you can manage the symptoms of heart disease with the following:
- Heart-friendly diet: Adjusting to a heart-friendly diet will help your heart work effectively. This includes a diet with leafy green vegetables, whole grains, fresh fruits, and fatty fish. If you’re not sure which foods to eat and which to avoid, it can be helpful to work with a nutritionist.
- Begin an exercise routine: Healthy eating is not enough to improve your overall health. Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and improve the overall strength of the heart.
- Quit smoking: Smoking with heart disease can be dangerous, leading to an increase in mortality rates. If you’re having a hard time quitting, discuss your options with your doctor.
- Follow your treatment plan: Your treatment plan will be individual to your medical condition and needs. Keep up with all medications and checkups.
Working closely with your medical team, you can manage the symptoms of heart disease.
How Do You Live With Heart Disease?
With routine medical checkups and an early enough medical diagnosis, you can live a fulfilling life, even with heart disease. While you might have to make lifestyle changes, including your diet and exercise routine, it is possible to improve the functioning and strength of your heart.
How to Help Your Loved One Post Heart Disease
Receiving a diagnosis of heart disease can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are ways that you can help your loved one, which include:
- Transportation to and from medical appointments: One of the most important ways to keep up with and monitor symptoms is with routine medical visits. If your loved one is feeling overly fatigued, they might find it difficult to get to and from multiple appointments.
- Offer household assistance: Household tasks can be tiring when dealing with heart disease. Offer to assist with things like cooking and cleaning.
- Assist with creating a healthy lifestyle: Doing exercise daily and eating a well-balanced meal is difficult. You can help your loved one with grocery shopping or by taking a walk with them. Encourage them to attend senior centers that allow them to exercise with others.
- Learn CPR: Individuals with heart disease are at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Learning CPR and developing an emergency care plan can be helpful should your loved one experience a medical emergency. Share this plan with them and ensure they have the resources they need.
Fortunately, the majority of insurance plans will cover the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. Recent insurance laws prevent insurance plans from dropping you from their coverage because of a chronic heart condition. However, it is important to discuss your coverage policy before undergoing any major treatments to understand what your financial obligations might be.
For More Information About Heart Disease
For more information about heart disease, consider these available resources:
- Office on Women’s Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The American Heart Association
Types of Heart Disease
It can be helpful to know the different types of heart disease. They include:
- Congenital heart disease: Congenital heart disease is a type of disease that occurs at birth. It might include defects or obstructions of the heart.
- Arrhythmia: Arrhythmia is a heart disease that consists of an irregular heartbeat. It could beat too fast, too slow, abnormally, or irregularly (atrial fibrillation).
- Coronary artery disease: With coronary artery disease, the aortic arteries are unable to provide the heart with a sufficient flow of oxygen.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy: Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart’s chambers become weakened.
- Myocardial infarction: Myocardial infarction can occur when a blood clot damages the heart’s muscle. This is also often referred to as a heart attack, and an acute myocardial infarction is also possible. A heart attack is considered a medical emergency, so if you experience any symptoms of chest pain or shortness of breath, it is important to seek medical care as soon as possible.
There are other types of heart disease, including mitral valve prolapses or pulmonary stenosis. Understanding the different types can help you make an informed treatment decision.
Heart disease is possible as you age. Keeping up with your physical checkups and being involved in your treatment is an important part of living with heart disease.