Heart Disease and Stroke: What Seniors Need to Know
The older you get, the more aware you become of your own mortality. We all know we can’t ward off death forever, but we can for sure try to delay it for as long as possible. If you want to push your final day of life as far into the future as possible, two of the top health issues you need to be aware of are heart disease and stroke.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Stroke is the third. Not all types of heart disease and stroke are preventable, but most are. If you know what you can do now to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke and how to be on the lookout for telltale symptoms of a problem, you can significantly increase your chances of living longer.
What to Know About Heart Disease
Heart disease is a pretty broad term applying to a number of types of illnesses and issues that can affect the health of your heart. As you likely know, your heart is one of the most important organs in your body, so any time it’s not working right, there’s cause for worry.
Common Types of Heart Disease
Many types of heart diseases have similar causes or symptoms, but it’s useful to understand what each one is and some of the differences between them.
Coronary Artery Disease
The most common type of heart disease people experience is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD causes most heart attacks, so if you’re at risk of it, you want to know it as soon as possible so you can take preventative measures. CAD occurs when your arteries become hard and narrow, so it’s more difficult for blood to get through and reach the heart.
CAD can be caused or exacerbated by lifestyle choices such as smoking, an unhealthy diet, or a general lack of exercise. Some people with CAD will encounter other symptoms before the disease reaches the point of a heart attack, such as angina, which is the chest pain that occurs when the heart doesn’t get enough blood. Angina is far less serious than a heart attack, but should be treated as a warning sign that you may experience a heart attack if you don’t take the proper measures to improve your heart health.
Heart failure is when your heart just isn’t able to pump as much blood through your body as you need. The symptoms that often point toward heart failure are:
- Hard time breathing
- Swelling in your feet, ankles, and legs
All of those symptoms can point to other problems as well, so if you’re worried you may be experiencing heart failure, head to the doctor’s office to see what they say.
Heart arrhythmia occurs anytime your heart is beating abnormally. Whether it’s beating too fast, too slow, or in an irregular rhythm, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as feeling dizzy, out of breath, faint, or having chest pains. Heart arrhythmia does occur more often in seniors, but it isn’t often a huge cause for concern.
Who’s At Risk of Heart Disease?
Not everyone’s at equal risk of heart disease. You’re more likely to need to be on the lookout for symptoms if you:
- Are a smoker
- Have a sedentary lifestyle
- Have high cholesterol
- Have high blood sugar
- Are obese
- Have diabetes
- Consume too much sodium
What to Know About Strokes
While heart disease is more common, strokes affect approximately 800,000 people in the U.S. every year. Strokes occur when the brain can’t get the blood it needs. They can often be deadly, but in many cases, recognizing what’s happening quickly enough can save a person’s life and reduce the brain damage strokes can cause.
The Types of Stroke
There are two main types of stroke you may encounter.
Ischemic strokes are caused by a blocked artery and make up about 85% of all strokes. They’re usually caused by blood clots, which can be caused by lifestyle choices like eating a diet high in fats, sodium, and cholesterol.
Hemorrhagic strokes are less common, but still serious. They occur when an artery in the brain either bursts or leaks blood. These strokes are often caused by high blood pressure and aneurysms.
How to Recognize A Stroke
The absolute most important thing to know about strokes is how to recognize them when they occur so you can get help fast. If you can quickly get someone suffering from a stroke to a medical professional, you vastly increase their chances of surviving and avoiding brain damage and physical disabilities.
The main symptoms of a stroke to look for are:
- Sudden numbness in the face, arm or leg. Often during a stroke, the patient will feel the numbness more on one side of the body than the other
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Trouble seeing, whether in one or both eyes
- Trouble walking due to dizziness or loss of balance
- Sudden severe headache
The symptoms come on fast and you should call 911 right away if you think someone near you is experiencing a stroke.
Who’s At Risk for a Stroke?
The risk factors for strokes should be familiar by now – they sound an awful lot like the risk factors for heart disease. You’re more likely to encounter a stroke if you:
- Have an unhealthy diet high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol
- Don’t get much exercise
- Are obese
- Frequently drink alcohol
The Relationship Between Heart Disease and Stroke
There’s a reason that strokes and heart disease have a serious overlap in risk factors. Your heart is in charge of pumping blood through your body – including to your brain. Both heart disease and stroke come about when your blood isn’t moving through your body as it should.
The symptoms and results may differ, but in many cases the causes are essentially the same.
(Note: there are exceptions, sometimes family history or something like a brain tumor can influence your risk, regardless of lifestyle. In most cases though, the risk factors described play a role.)
How to Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
As a senior, your risk for both heart disease and stroke increases. For every 10 years you live after the age 55, your risk of stroke doubles. The majority of deaths from heart disease occur with people over the age of 65.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. If you’ve been reading this far, you probably have some idea of the best moves to make to reduce your risk:
Exercise. – Sitting all day is terrible for us. We didn’t evolve to be sedentary and the lifestyle has some serious effects on our health. Go for walks. Make a point to fit 30 minutes of cardio or weight training into your day several times a week. Your body (and your loved ones) will thank you for it.
Eat a healthy diet. – You know the drill. Low in fat and sodium, high in fruits and vegetables.
Quit smoking. – If you still smoke, quit now. It’s probably the one thing you can do today that will have the biggest effect on your health.
Avoid stress. – Obviously this is much easier said than done, but if you have a lot of stress in your life, look for ways to minimize it. If you can cut out some of the commitments in your life, consider doing so. If you can’t, turn to techniques like meditation, yoga, and therapy to see if you can manage your stress levels better.
Go to the doctor often. – The sooner you can recognize the symptoms and risk factors, the sooner you know to step up your prevention efforts. A doctor can tell you when it’s time to be worried and what to do about it.
We can’t avoid all health risks, but we can take steps to minimize the risk of many of the common diseases and illnesses that occur. Healthy living can lead to fewer issues with cardiovascular health as you age and help you avoid the devastating brain damage that can come with a stroke. It may not be fun to exercise and eat healthy, but it’s far preferable to a heart attack.