Heart Beat-sics… I Mean Basics
It carries oxygen and nutrients to cells and tissues throughout your body.
It takes carbon dioxide and other waste products away from your tissues.
Figure 1: Circulation of Blood through the Heart (left) and Body (right).
Aging Heart: When Age Takes Its Toll
Heart Disease (Cardiovascular Disease/CVD)
Blood Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis
Cholesterol, Immune Cells and Atherosclerosis
Once your immune system notices the cholesterol in your arteries, it works to quarantine it, walling off the area of your artery wall and working to digest the fatty build-up.
The chemicals your immune system releases in this process, though, damage the walls of your arteries. This damage opens up gaps in your artery wall, letting more cholesterol in and drawing more immune cells. You’ve now got a vicious cycle on your hands.
This cycle can become more vicious, more quickly if the type of cholesterol in your blood is something called “LDL cholesterol.”
LDL cholesterol (LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins) tends to just hang out in your bloodstream, rather than heading back to your liver when it’s not needed, like your HDL cholesterol (tightly packaged cholesterol) does. This makes it far more likely to eek its way into the lining of your arteries and contribute to atherosclerosis.
Regardless of the type of packaging the cholesterol had before it got into your artery wall, once it does (and your immune cells follow), you have an atherosclerotic plaque. This plaque thickens and stiffens your artery walls and narrows the passageway inside your artery.
Narrower-than-normal passageways are not your friend!
Arteries that are narrow and stiff can’t expand and contract the way they’re supposed to when your blood pressure changes. Increased pressure in your arteries, because they’re too stiff and narrow, can cause chunks of that plaque to break off and cause even more problems!
Making Atherosclerosis Worse: Non-cholesterol Factors
High cholesterol levels, particularly high LDL cholesterol levels, in your blood may be the most important risk factor for developing atherosclerosis, but they’re not the only ones. Any medical condition or environmental exposure that can damage your arteries and let more cholesterol get into artery walls can make atherosclerosis worse. These include things like:
- High triglycerides
- High blood pressure
Additionally, you can have genetic differences in the way the walls of your arteries are constructed, how your immune system responds to cholesterol in your artery walls, and how stable plaque in your artery walls are.
These natural differences can make it more likely that you will develop atherosclerosis and/or its complications as you age. A good tip-off that you might have genes that aren’t great for your arterial health is if atherosclerosis runs in your family.
Ok, take a deep breath. You’ve made it through the long part! Now that you know about atherosclerosis, the other complications associated with an aging heart will be easier to understand, because atherosclerosis is often at the heart of them.
Remember when I mentioned that the increased blood pressure associated with stiff and narrow arteries can cause pieces of plaque to break off? That is an important tidbit to keep in mind to understand both heart attacks and strokes!
The pieces of plaque that sometimes break off end up floating along in the bloodstream. In a normal width artery that might not be a big deal.
If your arteries are narrow, however, and too stiff to expand because of atherosclerosis, there is an increased chance that plaque will get stuck and block the flow of blood to different parts of your body. Without blood flow, those parts of your body are cut off from their oxygen supply. Without oxygen, those body parts start to die off.
If the blood/oxygen supply is cut to your heart muscles, you have a heart attack. Your heart muscles start dying and cannot beat properly.
If blood and oxygen flow isn’t restored to allow your heart to beat normally again, this can easily become fatal because, without a properly beating heart, your entire body is being deprived of blood and oxygen.
Similar to a heart attack, a stroke can be the result of plaque cutting off blood supply. In this case, however, the blood supply is cut off to the brain. This causes damage to the cells of the brain. Of course, just like damage to your heart, damage to your brain has consequences for your whole body.
After all, your brain is your body’s command center. When damage occurs, your brain may not be able to command your body as it should, or once could. Motor skills like moving your arms or swallowing can be lost. You may lose the ability to talk all together or to have your sentences make sense. In some cases, your brain can stop functioning altogether, which is fatal.
The severity of stroke symptoms depends on which area of the brain is affected by the blood and oxygen loss, and how long the loss lasts.
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)
Congestive heart failure sounds pretty scary to me – the heart is failing?? Yikes! One piece of good news, I suppose, is that this doesn’t mean the heart has failed, but that it is in the process of failing. Maybe I’m just really trying to find the silver lining here.
While heart attack and stroke are pretty closely related to atherosclerosis, CHF can develop a little differently. It is a result of damage to heart muscles rather than directly related to blockages. Though this damage can come from a lack of oxygen to your heart muscles stemming from a blockage, it can also be the consequence of the aging heart muscle cells themselves.
Aging and cell dysfunction of heart muscle cells causes your heart muscles to be unable to contract the way they should. This leads to stiff heart muscles, poor or weak heartbeats, and a decrease in blood flow to the rest of your body.
As you can imagine, this is a real problem for your whole body health, just as heart attacks and strokes are. Organs throughout your whole body can start struggling to function without enough blood flow and oxygen. If the lack of blood flow reaches your kidneys, things can become very serious.
Without enough blood flow, your kidneys can’t filter your blood into urine properly, letting too much fluid stay in your body. This fluid then builds up in your legs, abdomen, and lungs, making it even harder for your heart to pump blood (the blood needs extra force to get through the fluid) and it makes it harder for your lungs to get oxygen into the blood your heart is managing to pump. You have a vicious cycle on your hands that, again, can end up being fatal.