Feb 27, 2018 Heart Health at Every Age

Heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the United States. As February marks American Heart Month, it’s a good time to remind people that prevention is key. Taking preventative measures now—no matter your age—has the power to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. Gary J. Rogal, M.D., Chief of Cardiology for RWJBarnabas Health and cardiologist on staff at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group (BHMG), both part of the RWJBarnabas Health system, discusses how age affects your risk for heart disease.

Heart Health at Any Age

“While there are specific things to be aware of in terms of heart health at different points of your life, there are things you can and should do, at any age to decrease your risk of heart disease,” said Dr. Rogal. “It’s really about leading a heart healthy lifestyle.” For optimal heart health at every age, Dr. Rogal recommends:

  • Not smoking. Smoking dramatically increases your risk of developing heart disease. Even secondhand smoke puts you at greater risk. If you already smoke, look at ways to quit – you will start reaping the benefits as soon as your do. A year after you stop smoking, your risk for heart disease is cut in half and will continue to decline until it is that of a nonsmoker.
  • Increase your physical activity level. Try to actively work your heart at least 2.5 hours a week. The American Heart Association recommends at least 40 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. There are exercise options for all ability levels, too. Water aerobics, yoga and even brisk walking can do the trick.
  • Watch how much alcohol you drink. Drinking too much can raise your blood pressure.
  • Stay at a healthy weight and maintain a healthy diet. Try a low-glycemic diet. Low-glycemic foods produce only small fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid diabetes and reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Although the risk for developing heart disease increases with age, it’s important to start taking care of your heart health at a young age to reduce the risk of developing heart disease later in life.

Heart Health in Your 20s

"It’s something young people generally don’t think about, but don’t wait to think about your heart health until there is a problem,” said Dr. Rogal. “There are three things young people should be aware of when considering their heart health. Exercise, plaque buildup and genetics.” 

  • Exercise. Start early – even in your late teens. Studies show that the exercise you do when you are young is “banked” and can positively impact your health for the rest of your life.

  • Plaque buildup. Vascular disease, the clogging of arteries with plaque, starts at a young age and progresses later in life. Plaque in your arteries can start to build up anywhere from your late teens to your 20s and if you don’t start managing that at a young age, you’re laying the foundation for heavy plaque buildup as you age. Making healthy lifestyle changes—such as stopping smoking or not smoking, losing weight and eating a healthy diet can stop this damage.  
  • Visit your doctor to evaluate your risk profile. Age, gender, and yes, family history, plays a role in the risk factors of heart disease. Fortunately, new studies show that making heart healthy lifestyle changes can even reverse your existing heart disease risk due to your genetic heritage. 

Heart Health in Your 30s

Learn to manage your stress. Stress that is linked to high blood pressure and inflammation is dangerous because both are known risk factors for heart disease and other heart problems. 

 “Stress causes a negative chain reaction within your body,” said Dr. Rogal.  “If you’re anxious, frustrated, scared or depressed, your body’s natural response is to release the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. They prepare your body to deal with stress and cause your heart to beat more rapidly and your blood vessels to narrow to help push blood to the center of the body. These hormones also increase your blood pressure.” 

After your stress subsides, your blood pressure and heart rate should return to normal, but if you’re continually stressed out, Dr. Rogal warns that your body doesn’t have a chance to recover and your artery walls could be damaged. 

Heart Health in Your 40s 

Learn about the warning signs. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that is often described as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, pain in the upper body, nausea and shortness of breath or air hunger when you’re not doing any physical activity. 

“Although heart attack symptoms tend to be similar, there can be a gender difference with warning signs of problems with your cardiovascular health,” said Dr. Rogal. “It’s important to be aware of those distinctions.”

Major heart disease symptoms unique to men include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain that can radiate to your neck, back or jaw
  • Unusual fatigue or weakness and shortness of breath after physical activity or lightheadedness with exertion

Major heart disease symptoms unique to women include:

  • Subtle, Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing in the upper body (chest, back, neck jaw or even arms)
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort after physical activity may be more common in women.  
  • Anxiety 

“It’s not always pain,” said Dr. Rogal. “Signs that there could be something wrong with your cardiovascular health can be subtler. You have to listen to your body.”  New symptoms with exertion anywhere from the upper abdomen to the jaw or into the back require a call to your physician.

Heart Health in Your 50s

It is never too late to start taking care of your heart. And the heart healthy tips you should follow when you’re young are just as important as you age. However, you may start to feel like you’re just not doing enough as you get older. The reality is, though, that even low-level exercise has significant benefits. 

“Don’t worry that as you age you can’t get to the same high level of intensity in exercise,” said Dr. Rogal. “Whatever you do is beneficial. Studies show that even 15 minutes of low level exercise five times a week can add to an increased life span. Just keep moving.” 

Heart Health in Your 60s and Beyond

“Heart disease becomes more common as you age so it is vital to see your doctor for regular checkups,” said Dr. Rogal. “And if your doctor prescribed medicines to control your blood sugar, cholesterol, or blood pressure, follow his or her instructions.”

Visit your doctor regularly to monitor your:

  • Blood cholesterol 
  • Lipid panels
  • Blood pressure
  • Body Mass Index

For more information or to make an appointment with one of New Jersey’s top cardiologists or cardiac surgeons, visit rwjbh.org/heart or call 1-888-724-7123.