How to Improve Your Heart Health at Any Age
Heart Health
March 27, 2024
How to Improve Your Heart Health at Any Age

When it comes to heart health, it’s never too early — or too late — to make a change. Whether we're teenagers forging our paths, or gracefully embracing the golden years, prioritizing heart health is crucial. That’s why we spoke with Hassan Pervaiz, M.D., an interventional cardiologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and at Texas Health Heart and Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to explore practical strategies for maintaining heart health across different stages of life.

Teenage Years: Building a Strong Foundation

During adolescence, heart health may not be top of mind for many. However, Pervaiz says establishing good habits early on can lay the groundwork for a healthy cardiovascular system.

“It’s a common misconception that heart health is not a pediatric issue because atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease usually manifests in adulthood,” Pervaiz explains. “But there is direct evidence to support that atherosclerosis actually has its roots in childhood.”

To address this, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends all children between 9 and 11 years old be screened for high blood cholesterol levels. While this timeline is prior to teenage years, if your teen hasn’t had a cholesterol screening, now is a good time to get one.

While teens may have a mind of their own and might be flexing that independence muscle, Pervaiz notes this is still a good time to encourage healthy physical activity and eating habits. 

In fact, everyone, not just teens, should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate- to high-intensity exercise. While this may seem like a bit of an uphill battle, at first, the more physical activity becomes incorporated as a part of a daily routine, the more it is likely to be continued throughout the years.

This can be a good time for teens to find sports or activities they enjoy, and communities within those activities that can help with the social aspect of wellness as well.

“These habits learned early on tend to stay with the person throughout their adult life. We have seen how difficult it is for patients to develop or change these habits later on in life.”

20s and 30s: Balancing Life and Health

As we navigate the challenges and opportunities of young adulthood, maintaining heart health becomes increasingly important, especially as new lifestyle-based risk factors tend to come into focus during this time period. Things like stress, not getting enough sleep, and substance use can compound other risk factors like obesity, unhealthy diet and not getting enough physical activity.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers face a significantly higher risk — two to four times — of developing heart disease and strokes compared to nonsmokers.

In addition to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption can also have harmful effects on heart health. It's advisable to adhere to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men on days when you choose to drink.

“Alcohol has shown to increase the risk for developing cardiomyopathy (weak heart muscle), arrhythmia and psychological stress,” Pervaiz adds.

Furthermore, it's important to be cautious of cannabis use. Recent studies indicate that regular marijuana consumption is associated with increased rates of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.

This is also a time in which many people tend to enter into the workforce, and may find themselves logging long hours at a desk. A recent study revealed desk-bound individuals faced a 34% higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality compared to those with more active occupations. While this isn’t a campaign to switch jobs, it acts as a reminder to be mindful of your physical activity throughout the day. In fact, even small bursts of activity throughout your day can go a long way in helping your longevity.

As we mentioned earlier, an increase in stress and a decrease in sleep tends to rear its ugly head in this age group, but it’s not something you should ignore. Numerous studies have shown that high stress levels can elevate blood pressure and increase the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks.

While stress is a normal part of life, prolonged periods of heightened stress can be problematic. Pay attention to signs of increased stress and find effective ways to manage it in your daily life.

In alignment with these findings, research emphasizes the critical role of sleep in cardiovascular health. Some studies suggest that sleep is equally vital as diet and exercise. For instance, individuals who consistently sleep less than seven hours per night exhibit a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure—significant risk factors for heart disease. Moreover, irregular sleep patterns have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

There are several strategies that can help achieve better sleep, including establishing a regular bedtime routine and eliminating blue light before bed. Cutting back on alcohol can help, too.

Furthermore, individuals in this age bracket often contend with a myriad of responsibilities, such as raising children, managing work commitments, and caring for older relatives. Despite these demands, it's imperative not to neglect routine medical examinations. These check-ups serve as crucial opportunities to detect and manage chronic conditions that may heighten the risk of heart disease.

“Although heart disease is less frequent in young adults, we still often see younger patients with certain heart conditions like heart rhythm disorders, and studies have shown that the process of heart disease starts in this age group,” Pervaiz says. “Cardiac risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol can often be present around this time. So, in addition to annual checkups, any symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, etc. should be thoroughly evaluated.”

40s and 50s: Prioritizing Wellness

In our forties and fifties, familial history and lifestyle choices can significantly influence heart health. Many in this age group may already have a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease or significant risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Because of this, Pervaiz notes this is often when many people experience a bit of a “wake-up call,” regarding their health.

Effectively managing these conditions is vital in reducing the incidence of strokes and heart attacks, now and in the future. In addition to building blocks of health that we’ve talked about thus far in the younger age groups, it's also crucial to adhere to any prescribed medications, attend regular check-ups, and ensure your chronic conditions are optimally controlled.

This is when the “never too late to start” part comes into play. It's never too late to embark on a journey of improved health through exercise, dietary enhancements, and substance use reduction. Even for those starting from scratch with physical activity, there are notable cardiovascular health benefits to be gained.

“This is a good time to get back to basics,” Pervaiz notes. “Eat a heart-healthy diet that is rich in vegetables/fruits and whole grains, low in saturated fat and devoid of trans fats and sugary beverages. Regular consumption of one to two servings of fish per week is recommended, and try to avoid smoking, recreational drugs and drinking, especially if you already have an elevated risk of heart attack or stroke.”

Quitting smoking, even later in life, can lead to the reversal of some adverse effects on health. If you’re looking to address smoking, drinking, or substance use, consulting with your doctor is recommended. A range of tools, including medications and counseling, are available to support you in your efforts to make positive changes and enhance your overall well-being.

This time period is also when many women will begin menopause, which can have a big impact on heart health due to a decline in estrogen levels. Estrogen plays a role in keeping lipid levels in check, supporting healthy blood vessels, and regulating blood pressure.

“Menopause increases the risk of coronary artery disease,” Pervaiz explains. “Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, weight management, and stress reduction become crucial during this phase to mitigate cardiovascular risks.”

Additionally, there are interventions such as hormone replacement therapy or medications that can help reduce risk and manage symptoms.

60s and Beyond: Embracing Aging Gracefully

As we enter our golden years, maintaining heart health becomes a priority. This involves applying familiar principles that we’ve outlined throughout this piece, with some adjustments to accommodate individual circumstances.

Despite potential physical limitations, exercise remains feasible with modifications, and regular medical check-ups become increasingly important, tailored to specific health conditions.

As individuals age, the risk of heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias rises significantly. However, Pervaiz notes it's common for symptoms to be attributed to the aging process, potentially leading to dismissal or oversight. Therefore, staying vigilant and informed about the signs and symptoms of emergencies, such as heart attack and stroke, is crucial.

This can include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain: This may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of the chest, lasting for a few minutes or coming and going.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing, particularly when at rest or during minimal exertion, may indicate heart trouble.
  • Fatigue: Unusual tiredness or weakness, especially if it's sudden or extreme, can be a warning sign of a heart problem.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness: Feeling faint or dizzy, especially when standing up suddenly, can suggest cardiovascular issues.
  • Nausea or vomiting: Some individuals may experience stomach discomfort, nausea, or vomiting, which can accompany heart-related emergencies.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas: Pain or discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, or upper abdomen can sometimes be associated with heart problems.
  • Sweating: Unexplained sweating, particularly cold sweats, may be a symptom of a heart-related emergency.
  • Palpitations: Sensations of irregular or rapid heartbeats, fluttering, or pounding in the chest may indicate arrhythmias or other cardiac issues.

Additionally, social connection emerges as a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of heart health, particularly for older adults. Loneliness, pervasive in society, correlates with adverse health outcomes, including poorer cardiovascular health and premature mortality.

Recognizing the importance of social connections transcends age boundaries, impacting both emotional and physical well-being. Even minor adjustments in nurturing social connections can yield significant benefits, particularly when sustained over time. Thus, fostering meaningful relationships should be viewed as an integral aspect of promoting heart health throughout the golden years.

The Takeaway

From youth to old age, prioritizing heart health is a journey that requires dedication and vigilance. By adopting healthy habits early, managing risk factors, and seeking timely medical care, we can safeguard our hearts and enjoy fulfilling lives at every age. As we navigate life's twists and turns, let's remember that a healthy heart is the cornerstone of overall well-being.

To learn more about your heart health, take our 5-minute assessment here.

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