Healthy Habits for Seniors this Heart Month
Written by Emily Rice, RN, freelance writer & former BSL associate
February is often associated with the love of Valentine’s Day, but there’s another reason the month is all about the heart. February marks American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease and promote heart wellness.
As we age, the heart and the blood vessels change, which increases the risk of heart disease and heart attacks particularly in seniors. Among these changes are a build up of plaque in the large arteries over time, known as atherosclerosis. When these fatty deposits build up in the coronary arteries, it reduces blood flow to the heart muscle, resulting in heart disease. Furthermore, aging can lead to a slower, weaker heart over time, as well as stiffer heart valves, restricting the flow of blood out of the heart. It is important to incorporate heart healthy habits into everyday life to mitigate the impact of these changes.
Taking care of one’s heart is important at all stages in life; it’s never too late to start living a healthier lifestyle and reduce the risk and impact of disease. This education and awareness is particularly important because heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (1). At Benchmark, we’re committed to helping residents live longer, fuller, healthier lives with these wellness tips and heart education, along with our extensive programming and healthy meal options offered within our communities.
Get Your Blood Pressure Checked
As seniors age, it’s crucial to have your blood pressure checked regularly, even if you feel fine or are not on any blood pressure medications. Typically, there are no symptoms of high blood pressure, only headaches or shortness of breath in rare cases, which emphasizes the importance of checking it at every doctor’s appointment or every 6 months if possible. High blood pressure becomes more common as we age, affecting one in three Americans (1) and is the leading preventable cause of cardiovascular disease.
Hypertension (meaning high blood pressure) is when the pressure in the arteries is elevated, causing the heart to work harder to pump blood out. In general, hypertension is defined as blood pressure above 140/90, and severe hypertension is defined as blood pressure over 180/120, however, this may vary from person to person. If left undiagnosed or untreated, high blood pressure can lead to an increased risk for stroke or heart attack. It is important to talk with your doctor about your risk for high blood pressure and take medications as directed.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve heart health and is a key approach to preventing heart disease. Exercise is so important for the heart, it is actually considered a risk factor for heart disease to do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day or 150 minutes a week.
Exercise can directly decrease the amount of plaque in the coronary arteries and increase the ability of the heart to effectively pump blood through the body. Simple exercises can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain. Exercise also improves balance and bone density which reduces the risk of falls in older adults (1). Looking for some senior- specific, low-impact, activities? Try including chair yoga, resistance band or light dumbbell workouts and walking to get your heart pumping without over-exerting yourself. Whatever you choose, your heart will surely thank you for it.
Heart Healthy Diet
Diet is also an important risk factor in preventing coronary heart disease. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods including fish, lean meat, and eggs are great for a healthy heart. The key is to also limit foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats. Among the foods highest in saturated fats are processed meats like bacon, sausage and hot dogs, as well as heavy creams and cheeses. Examples of sugary foods are just what you’d expect – desserts like pies, candies, cakes and ice cream. Although they aren’t good for the heart, they’re usually good for the soul, so the key here is moderation.
Those already with heart disease can also greatly benefit from a low-sodium diet. This is because salt makes blood vessels hold onto water, and when you have extra volume in the blood vessels it creates a higher pressure for the heart to pump against. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about how much sodium is appropriate for you.
A key preventative measure against heart disease is to stop smoking. Smoking increases one’s heart rate and can cause irregular heart rhythms, making the heart work harder and more ineffectual. Smoking also causes high blood pressure, which as mentioned earlier, is a major cause of heart disease. The dangerous chemicals inhaled with cigarettes can cause damage to the heart’s blood vessels. Quitting smoking can immediately start to improve the function of the heart and after a year can decrease the risk of heart attack by 50% (2). If you’re still a smoker, this could be your sign to quit.
The body’s emotions have a direct impact on how the body functions, and chronic stress can have serious effects on the heart. Stress can lead to high blood pressure and to an overall increase in inflammation in the body, and it has been linked as a risk factor for heart disease. Take a deep breath, relax, and reduce your risk by finding healthy outlets to relieve stress by learning some meditation and mindful thinking practices or by joining one of the many reading, gardening or walking clubs and programs Benchmark offers!
While these tips are general guidelines to living a healthier lifestyle, it is always advisable to talk with your doctor when starting a new diet or exercise program or by making any drastic changes to your current lifestyle. At Benchmark, our communities encourage seniors to stay active and connected, with award-winning resident engagement programs, exercise groups and nutritious dining options. We’re committed to the health and wellness of all residents, and we are ready to promote heart-health lifestyles with you this Heart Month.
(1) Source: cdc.gov/heartmonth