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Hearts & Arteries: What Happens to Them As You Age
  • Posted October 17, 2023

Hearts & Arteries: What Happens to Them As You Age

As a consumer, you probably see "heart healthy" labels on food items all the time. But do you really know what heart health means and why it's important?

Experts from Tufts University in Boston offer some details on how your heart works and how you can safeguard your heart's health.

“It's not as if you turn 65 or 70 and everything falls apart,” said Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition team at Tufts' Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

“If your aim is to keep your vasculature healthy, you have to start early and be a good role model for your offspring,” she said in a school news release.

The heart does a lot of important work, pumping blood through arteries and veins to carry oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.

With age, blood vessels can stiffen and blockages can build up. The whole system may become more prone to inflammation, increasing risk of heart attacks, heart failure and other cardiac dysfunction.

Lifestyle can't control all of this. Some of it is the result of genetics and your environment.

While men have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than women when they're young, women's risk rises sharply after menopause, according to Tufts.

The blood vessels expand and contract based on the body's needs. But they also become less flexible over time, making it harder to get blood where needed. This can cause blood pressure to rise and create faster pressure waves. That places extra stress on the heart and increases the likelihood of heart failure or other cardiac diseases.

The female hormone estrogen appears to be protective, said Jennifer DuPont, a principal investigator at the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center.

“Women have lower arterial stiffness when they're young,” DuPont said in the release. “And then they hit menopause and all of a sudden they have a large increase in arterial dysfunction. Not only do they catch up to the rates of dysfunction in men, they actually exceed it in some instances.”

DuPont has found in her research that genetic deletion of estrogen receptors in older female mice protects them from this arterial stiffness. The mice experience a drop in circulating estrogen with menopause, leaving estrogen receptors unbound.

“Our goal is to figure out some downstream targets of the unbound receptors, which could lead to the development of novel sex-specific therapeutic options,” DuPont said.

Cholesterol deposits known as plaques can collect on the inside of the arteries throughout life. The body sends white blood cells, and eventually grows a cap of muscle cells over the plaque, which can narrow arteries. This is a problem when a cap ruptures, forming a clot and potentially leading to a heart attack.

It turns out that plaques that are more inflamed -- have more white blood cells in them -- are more likely to rupture, the Tufts team said. Researchers there have shown that plaques in young female mice are less inflamed than plaques from male mice. That might explain why younger females are protected from heart attacks and strokes.

To protect your heart, Lichtenstein recommends eating a diet emphasizing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy products and proteins from fish, lean poultry or plant-based sources like beans, nuts and seeds. It should be limited in salt and added sugar.

“It's easier than ever to consume a heart-healthy diet,” Lichtenstein said. “And there's plenty of flexibility to find a healthy pattern that fits one's personal preferences and ethnic and cultural background. You shouldn't feel penalized because you want to develop a healthy dietary pattern.”

It's also important to avoid smoking, stay active, control stress and get adequate sleep.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on heart health.

SOURCE: Tufts University, news release, Oct. 2, 2023

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