How the Heart Grows Old
Many people who are taking care of aging or elderly parents have questions about the effects of time and age on the heart. Is heart disease inevitable? Why is the heart more vulnerable when exposed to what used to be everyday occurrences? Does age eventually cause the elder's heart to just "give out?"
To begin, we must remember that the heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, undergoes change with age. Not all changes in the older heart are certain, but certain changes are inevitable, even in the absence of disease:
- Heart walls thicken
- Heart rate slows, and the "timer" can be irregular with pauses
- Maximum heart rate declines
- The heart does not pump as efficiently
- The heart as a muscle loses strength
These factors mean the pumping power of the heart declines, as does the maximum heart rate (the most times the heart can contract in a minute). When this rate declines, systolic blood pressure rises as the heart works harder to give the body the oxygenated blood it craves.
As the years go by and the heart experiences a significant loss of pump function due to the changes of the heart with age, congestive heart failure can occur.