All too often, older people feel that heart attacks are due to an aging heart that stops “ticking.” Just 15 years ago, even the medical community thought that the hearts of older people just gave out from the wear and tear of normal aging. But a 25-year study by the National Institutes of Health debunked that myth when it revealed that the hearts of older men studied were pumping blood practically at the same rate as their younger counterparts. Yet 80 percent of the 1,300 people who have heart attacks every day in this country are over 65. Why? Unhealthy lifestyles and age-related conditions pose undue pressure and stress for our hearts to function properly. The good news: if you know how to prevent a heart attack, they can be averted.
Who’s at greatest risk?
The first step to knowing how to prevent a heart attack is learning the characteristics of people who are at greatest risk. They are:
- Overweight people
- People with high blood pressure
- People with high cholesterol
- People experiencing high levels of stress
- People with lethargic lifestyles
- Anyone with heart disease in the family tree
The good news is that nearly everything on this list can be addressed with simple lifestyle changes to stave off a heart attack.
The two major culprits of heart disease
Two medical conditions are known to cause heart attacks: high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
High blood pressure. Of all the risk factors for heart attack, high blood pressure is the “big one.” Imagine your garden hose hooked up to a fire truck. The pressure shooting through the hose would wear it thin in no time. Now imagine a small pump at the end of that hose trying to redirect the high-pressured water through other small hoses. Any bets on how long the pump can handle the pressure?
In a less dramatic way, this is what high blood pressure does to a heart. The continuous, high-pressured rush of blood flowing through blood vessel walls (hose-like arteries and veins) wears them down to a point where they can tear or leak. This is why it’s important to monitor your blood pressure, which is a measure of the force of blood coursing through arteries. Blood pressure is expressed in two numbers and a healthy blood pressure for a resting, healthy adult is 120/80 mmHg and is commonly spoken as "one-twenty over eighty." The first number is the systolic blood pressure – the force of blood as the heart is pumping. The second is the diastolic number and represents the pressure that remains in the arteries when the heart is relaxed. A high systolic number is a sure sign to get to the doctor. Your doctor can tell you what’s considered high for your age and weight. African-Americans should be on high alert for high blood pressure as they are more likely than anyone else to have the condition.
So how do you decrease your blood pressure? Decreasing salt intake can reduce high blood pressure, so be sure to check out the sodium content of packaged and processed food – you’ll be shocked at the high numbers. Maintaining a healthy weight and managing stress are two other ways to bring blood pressure down. If necessary, medications can help. The most commonly prescribed medication is a diuretic, which pulls salt and water from the circulatory system and sends them off to the urinary system. Any medication has to be closely monitored by a physician so that other conditions aren’t adversely affected. No matter what, a salty diet has to go and blood pressure checks should become routine.
Cholesterol. Back to our garden hose analogy: Imagine fatty, sticky stuff stuck to the inside of your hose; the result would be a dribbling stream of water. Cholesterol is the fatty sticky stuff stuck to blood vessels. When this stuff reaches a level that actually clogs the vessels, it’s given a name: atherosclerosis. Cholesterol readings can tell you how much of this stuff is in your system. You are at more risk if you smoke, have high blood pressure, are diabetic or are obese. If that’s the case, you should have an annual blood test to check your cholesterol.
To reduce risk, a low-cholesterol diet is the way to go. Cut down on fats one step at a time. Cholesterol is found only in animal products: meat, poultry, seafood, organ meats, eggs and dairy products such as butter and cheese. One egg yolk will just about consume one day’s healthy limit of cholesterol. Check out the American Heart Association’s website
for all kinds of cholesterol information, diets and treatment, or call them at 1.800.242.8721 to request copies of their publications.
The bottom line
- Eighty percent of the 1,300 people who have heart attacks every day in this country are over 65. Unhealthy lifestyles and age-related conditions pose undue pressure and stress for hearts to function properly.
- The risk of a heart attack can be reduced by making simple lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, getting more exercise, reducing stress and eating more healthfully.
- High cholesterol and blood pressure are the two biggest culprits of heart attacks. Both should be monitored regularly and can be lowered by a diet lower in sodium and in cholesterol, medications, and other healthy lifestyle changes.