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Senior living: How seniors can prevent heart disease and live a healthier life

By Dr. Daniel H. LaMont,

Contributing writer 

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in adults.

And for older adults, there is an even greater cause for concern, since about 21.7% of American adults who art at least 65 reported having coronary heart disease, a stroke or both, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Older adults are statistically more likely to have heart disease for many reasons. Plaque rupture, atrial fibrillation, loss of vascular compliance, obesity, hypertension and diabetes all contribute to this increased incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Daniel H. LaMont, M.D., FACC, FSCAI, cardiologist, MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Saddleback Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of MemorialCare)

The National Council on Aging notes that heart disease is a broad term that includes a variety of conditions, such as coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeat, problems with the heart valves, problems with the heart muscle and hereditary (congenital) defects.

Approximately 80% of heart disease deaths occur in people who are aged 65 or older, according to the American Heart Association. Dying from cardiovascular disease is 10 times more common than any other cause of death in seniors. No matter how old you get, knowing the risk factors of heart disease is the first step in preventing — or taking steps to reverse — heart disease, helping you live longer.

Know your risk for heart disease

There are many behavioral factors that can contribute to an older adult being at risk for heart disease. But it’s important to know even as you age, you can still work to minimize risk factors. So don’t give up on yourself! Major risk factors for heart diseases include:

High blood pressure.
High cholesterol.
Smoking.
Obesity.
Diabetes.
Lack of physical activity.
Poor eating habits.

Another factor that adds to older adults’ risk of heart disease is genetics. It is important to understand and know your family history of heart disease. Genetic factors sometimes play a role when it comes to high blood pressure, heart disease and other related conditions. And when genetic risks are combined with unhealthy lifestyle habits, it can increase the risk of heart disease greatly.

Know the symptoms of heart disease

In the early stages of heart disease, symptoms are not always noticeable, especially in older adults. Since older adults tend to have more aches and pains, please don’t minimize any of these symptoms and always speak to your physician if you are feeling an onset of any of these symptoms with exertion:

Chest, shoulder, arm, neck, jaw or back pain or pressure.
Shortness of breath when active, or while lying flat.
Lightheadedness when standing up.
Dizziness or imbalance when walking.
Confusion.
Headaches.
Easy onset fatigue.
Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach and/or neck.
Intermittent weakness or numbness in an arm or leg.
Intermittent loss of vision in one eye.
Intermittent slurred speech.

It is essential to visit your doctor regularly to help ensure your heart is healthy and to catch early signs of heart disease.

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Preventing or lowering risk?

When found early, heart disease is much easier to treat and manage than when it is in a later stage. It’s easier to take a walk around your house, for example, if you aren’t carrying an oxygen tank with you.

Here are some things you can do now to help lower your risk of heart disease:

Being more active: Start by walking around the house, gardening, doing water aerobics and looking into what classes your local senior center might offer. Talk with your doctor about the activities that would be best for you.
Quit smoking: If you still smoke, it’s time to quit. There are many smoking cessation classes available specifically for seniors.
Eat healthy: Follow a heart healthy diet by eating more fruits, vegetables and foods high in fiber. I’m sure you still have some of your favorite pies or dishes that may not be as healthy but try to limit those to special occasions.
Stay hydrated: Seniors get dehydrated quicker than anyone else – as we age, our body starts to dry out more; you may notice it in your skin and hair. But seniors really should be mindful of drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
Lower your alcohol consumption: Alcohol, when paired with medicine, can have diminishing effects, so it’s important to not drink as much as you age.
Manage your stress: Stress can manifest itself in older adults in more physical ways, such as headaches and insomnia – so be mindful of this.
Control your diabetes: Follow your doctor’s advice to manage diabetes by taking prescribed medications as directed.
Control your blood pressure and/or cholesterol: Don’t forget that it’s important to take medication. But lifestyle changes can always help you. Light exercise and choosing not to eat saturated fats or trans-fat foods can significantly improve your health.

It is never too late to start taking care of your heart. No matter your age, it is important to have egular physicals and ask your doctor whether regular cardiovascular screenings and risk reduction visits make sense for you. Along with living a healthy lifestyle, heart evaluations can help detect heart disease early – at its most manageable stage.

Dr. Daniel Lamont is a cardiologist at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center and has been practicing for 20 years. He graduated from Brown University Medical School in 1991 and specializes in cardiology and interventional cardiology.

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