While the death rate for heart disease has been declining significantly for older Americans over the past ten years, heart disease and stroke remain two of the leading causes of death in the U.S. for people ages 65 and older. Even worse, regardless of age, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the U.S. and the world, killing one American every 84 seconds.
You need to take it seriously.
Because even if it’s somewhat less likely to kill you, cardiovascular disease continues to take a toll. Cardiovascular operations and procedures are up nearly 30 percent in the U.S. Stroke remains a leading cause of disabilities. High blood pressure and high cholesterol — major risk factors for stroke and heart disease — now affect about half of all Americans ages 55 to 64.
The good news: There’s a lot you can do to prevent both heart disease and stroke, even after the age of 50.
The American Heart Association recommends the following.
• Work with a physician to monitor your health — especially cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and triglyceride levels, as well as your weight, striving to keep them in a healthy range.
• Eat a healthful diet low in fat and full of fruits and vegetables, fiber, whole grains, lean meats and fish.
• Exercise regularly.
• Know your risk factors and reduce the ones that you can.
• Don’t smoke — if you do smoke, quit.
“It’s never too late to make changes,” says Mary Ann Bauman, MD, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and Medical Director for Women’s Health and Community Relations, at Integris Health in Oklahoma City. “Sometimes, people feel that if they haven’t paid attention to their health thus far, there’s no use starting now. But that’s not true. Adopting a healthy lifestyle at any time will always make a difference.”
For example, research shows that there are heart-health benefits to exercise, even something as simple as walking 30 minutes per day, regardless of whether you lose any weight. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that exercise lowered blood pressure and heart rate, allowing the heart to work more efficiently, increased “good” cholesterol (HDL) and improved glucose processing.
“Plus,” Dr. Bauman says, “it just makes you feel better.”
Dr. Bauman says that people resistant to making changes sometimes tell her, “If I die, I die.” The reality, she says, is that not taking care of your health isn’t necessarily going to kill you, at least not right away. “You’re just not going to live very well. Your quality of life is going to be quite low.
“Making lifestyle changes can be overwhelming for many people,” she says, “if you start thinking of all the things you need to do.” Dr. Bauman says she tells people to “take it one step at a time. It’s amazing what small changes will do.”
For example, she says, lowering systolic blood pressure (the upper number, which measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats) by just 10 mm/Hg will decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke by 30 to 50 percent.
There are numerous ways to lower blood pressure, she says. Decreasing salt in your diet, losing weight, exercising and taking medication all help to lower systolic blood pressure. Reducing stress, caffeine, alcohol and quitting smoking may also help, advises the Mayo Clinic.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, says Dr. Bauman, and if your doctor has prescribed medication, the best thing you can do is to take it — regularly.
Studies have shown that more than 60 percent of cardiovascular patients fail to take their medications. Even after being hospitalized for a cardiovascular event, one in four fail to fill their prescriptions for at least a week after discharge. Of patients who are initially adherent, up to half discontinue blood pressure medications within 6 to 12 months, and only 40 percent continue cholesterol-lowering drugs for two years after hospitalization.
“These medications make a difference,” Dr. Bauman says. “They save lives and they prolong a better quality of life. It is very important that people continue to take them.”