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Age-related heart changes are something most people do not think about as they age. As we age, the heart and blood vessels also age and experience changes. Some of these changes are purely related to aging while others, while related to aging, have modifiable factors involved as well, that when left untreated, may result in heart disease.
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Aging-Related Changes Affecting the Heart
The human heart is a complex organ that can be described as a “little factory”. It works every second of the day pumping blood and receiving it. Each of the four chambers has its own function, but they all work together as well to ensure the entire body is adequately supplied with blood and oxygen. Aging changes include the following:
The heart controls the heartbeat with a natural pacemaker system. As we age, fat deposits and fibrous tissue may develop in the pathways of this system. The SA node (the natural pacemaker) loses some of its cells. A slightly slower heart rate results from these changes.
Age-related heart changes in the heart will result in a healthy, normal older person's ECG to slightly differ from a healthy, younger adult's ECG. Atrial fibrillation, and other abnormal heart rhythms, are more common in an older person. Heart disease may cause this.
It is not uncommon for the size of the heart to become slightly larger, and this is especially true of the heart's right ventricle. The wall of the heart becomes thicker, resulting in the chamber not being able to hold as much blood as it could when the patient was younger, regardless of the increased overall heart size.
Deposits of lipofuscin, and “aging pigment”, is a normal aging-related change of the heart. Heart muscle cells will slightly degenerate. The heart valves responsible for controlling blood flow direction, stiffen and thicken. It is fairly common for an elderly person to have a valve stiffness-related heart murmur.
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Aging-Related Changes Affecting the Blood Vessels
Baroreceptors, a type of receptor, keep an eye on blood pressure and make any necessary changes to try and keep blood pressure fairly constant when a person changes their activities or positions. These receptors lose sensitivity with age. This may be why many older people suffer from a condition known as orthostatic hypotension. Due to less blood going to their brain, dizziness can result.
The aorta, main artery from the heart, becomes less flexible, more stiff, and it thickens. This is thought to occur because of blood vessel wall connective tissue changes. This makes the heart work harder and blood pressure higher, which may result in the heart muscle thickening. The other arteries of the heart also become stiffer and thicker. Overall, most elderly people will have some type of increase in their blood pressure, usually a moderate increase.
Slight thickening affect the capillary walls. This may result in the rate of exchange of wastes and nutrients occurring at a slightly slower rate.
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Aging-Related Changes Affecting the Blood
As we age the blood itself also changes. The amount of water in the body is reduced. Because of this blood volume also decreases due to less fluid being present in the bloodstream.
There is a reduction in the number of red blood cells. This may lead to fatigue. White blood cells are often not affected by age, however lymphocytes are decreased in number and how well they can battle bacteria. This decreases the patient's ability to resist infection.
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MedlinePlus. (2009). Aging Changes in Organs – Tissues – Cells. Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from MedlinePlus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004012.htm
The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. (2007). Changes in the Body. Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: http://merckmanuals.com/home/sec26/ch320/ch320b.html#sec26-ch320-ch320b-192