What happens to a rubber band when it is stretched or not used for a long time? It becomes fragile; it loses its elasticity and no longer has tensile strength to hold things in place. It literally loses its purpose of “stretch-and-back” to take on the shape it supports. This is exactly what happens to our blood vessels as we age.
Our blood vessels and other organs in the body are made up of elastic tissues that have the capacity to stretch and go back to its usual shape.
As we age, there is hardening of the blood vessels due to several factors. The main artery from the heart (aorta) becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. This is most likely related to changes in the connective tissue of the blood vessel wall. This makes the blood pressure higher and makes the heart work harder, which may lead to thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy).
The other arteries also thicken and stiffen. In general, most elderly people have a moderate increase in blood pressure. The capillary walls thicken slightly. This may cause a slightly slower rate of exchange of nutrients and wastes.
On the other hand, receptors called baroreceptors monitor the blood pressure and make changes to help maintain a fairly constant blood pressure when a person changes positions or is doing other activities. The baroreceptors become less sensitive with aging. This may explain why many older people have orthostatic hypotension, a condition in which the blood pressure falls when a person goes from lying or sitting to standing. This causes dizziness because there is less blood flow to the brain.
The heart in general undergoes aging. The natural pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. The natural pacemaker (the SA node) loses some of its cells. These changes may result in a slightly slower heart rate.
A slight increase in the size of the heart, especially the left ventricle, is not uncommon. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that the chamber can hold may actually decrease despite the increased overall heart size. The heart may fill more slowly. Heart changes cause the ECG of a normal, healthy older person to be slightly different than the ECG of a healthy younger adult. Abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias), such as atrial fibrillation, are more common in older people. They may be caused by heart disease.
These normal physiologic changes in the cardiovascular system may affect normal functioning of the heart and will cause it to pump harder especially when one also suffers from different metabolic diseases like diabetes or has been taking a lot of medicine. Emotional stress, infections and injuries may also affect the aging heart.
Prevention is still better than cure. It is best to control your hypertension, cholesterol and sugar levels as well as avoid smoking. Maintaining the appropriate body weight is also essential to prevent obesity which is linked to mortality and morbidity from cardiovascular diseases. Balanced diet is also very important.
Get more exercise! When you move and “stretch-and-back,” you allow the connective tissues in your body maintain its tensile strength. Moderate exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart, and the rest of your body, healthy.
Consult with your provider before beginning a new exercise program. Exercise moderately and within your capabilities, but do it regularly. People who exercise usually have less body fat and smoke less than people who do not exercise. They also tend to have fewer blood pressure problems and less heart disease.