Aging and the cardiovascular system

The main function of the cardiovascular system is the internal transport of cells and dissolved materials, including nutrients, waste, and gasses.

Differences between cardiovascular functioning in older and younger persons have been extensively quantified. However, interactions between age, disease, and lifestyle are often overlooked. Whether the high prevalence of cardiovascular disorders such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart failure is due to an aging process or whether these disorders merely occur more frequently in elderly people because of a longer exposure to risk, has not yet been established. It is reasonable to ascertain, however, that the capabilities of the cardiovascular system gradually decline with age.

As we age, the composition of the blood itself changes. There is a reduction in the volume of red blood cells and it becomes less efficient at absorbing and transporting oxygen. There is also a more likely chance of a blood clot because the blood becomes thicker and less fluid with age and is able to pool in some areas due to structural weakness of the blood vessels which reduces exercise capacity. This may lead to fatigue.

As the body ages, the arteries lose some of their elasticity and become less pliable and smaller. This causes the heart to work harder to push the blood through the arteries to the body, resulting in decreased blood flow to the organs such as the brain, as well as an increase in blood pressure which can promote the development of high blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. Due to less blood going to the brain, dizziness can result.

Other age related changes in blood vessels are often related to arteriosclerosis, a thickening and narrowing of arterial (blood vessel) walls in which the walls become less tolerant of sudden increases in pressure. This can lead to an aneurysm or rupture of the vessels causing a stroke, heart attack, or massive blood loss. Blood clots can form as plaque deposits. And, there might be pooling of blood in the veins in the legs because valves are not working effectively.

The heart muscle becomes weaker and less efficient, atrophied with age. This negatively affects blood circulation and oxygen transport throughout the entire body. Furthermore, as age increases, the heart cannot respond to an increased workload as quickly as it once did. This decrease in response occurs because the heart muscle loses elasticity and becomes stiffer and more rigid. The heart cells have a lowered ability to use oxygen. This can cause dizziness and loss of balance. Most often, this is noticed when there is sudden movement, a quick change of position or exertion.

Further age-related changes in the heart include a reduction in cardio output during exercise, changes in the activities of nodal and conductive fibers, a reduction in the elasticity of the heart’s fibrous tissues, progressive atherosclerosis that can restrict coronary circulation, and replacement of damaged cardiac muscle fibers by scar tissue.

Aging affects aerobic capacity and cardiovascular performance during exercise. Peak exercise capacity and peak oxygen (O2) consumption decreases with age. Other possible disorders include inefficient redistribution of blood flow to working muscles and reduced O2 extraction and utilization per unit of muscle.

It is not clear if all these changes are strictly due to aging or if they are also caused by longer exposure to things such as poor dietary choices, cigarettes, lack of exercise, and environmental pollutants. Older people who are in better shape tend to have more efficient cardiovascular systems.

While it is impossible to prevent aging, it is possible to increase your cardiovascular health. This can be accomplished by maintaining a healthy weight, following a nutritious diet, and exercising regularly. Making smart lifestyle choices is important throughout a lifetime to help ensure cardiovascular health as a person ages.

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