Keeping Your Heart Young as You Age

February 08, 2022

Frank Sinatra was on to something when he sang, “Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth to be young at heart.” It’s quite possible as you age to keep your heart working like it did when you were younger, but it will take some work. 

The beat goes on
Cardiologist Gene Iucci, DO, FACC, with Penn Cardiology-Somers Point said if you remain active and eat a healthy diet, then your heart may not have to work harder to do the same job at 60 that it did at 25. “But your heart will have to overcome things that tend to come with age such high blood pressure or atherosclerosis,” Iucci explained. 

The atherosclerosis – high blood pressure connection
Many factors can contribute to high blood pressure. It can be blamed on poor dietary habits with too much salt and too many high fat processed foods, or it could be blamed on atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Dr. Iucci explained when we are young our arteries are akin to balloons and have a great deal of elasticity. 

“As we age, our arteries lose that elasticity. The body still needs to move the same amount of blood through the arteries to carry oxygen-rich blood to all of our organs, and if those arteries are harder and stiffer it will take more effort to move that volume of blood. To compensate, an individual’s blood pressure will increase to stretch and force the blood through,” said Dr. Iucci. “Things like smoking and lack of exercise will contribute to atherosclerosis.” 

Working with your physician to manage atherosclerosis is a good plan. According to Dr. Iucci, “There really is no way to reverse atherosclerosis once it is diagnosed. The person would need to dramatically reduce their cholesterol and LDL levels and adopt a vegan lifestyle. It would be rather challenging to attempt to reverse it. What we can do is work to slow the progression of the disease over time.”

Sedentary lifestyle
“Even as we get older, we need to keep moving,” said Dr. Iucci. “A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to premature aging of the heart. Your arteries lose their elasticity if you are not moving or exercising on a regular basis. The American College of Cardiology recommends 10,000 steps daily as a baseline for activity. I suggest 10-15 minutes of walking as well to get the heart rate up.” 

Shortness of breath
Some people may be alarmed if they experience shortness of breath during exercise. Dr. Iucci said that it is not always an indication to stop exercising. He suggests, if the person has had a negative work up, meaning they have had a checkup and there was no cardiac disease discovered, they should not be alarmed. But if it is more than just shortness of breath, if there is chest pain or a heaviness as well, they should discuss it with their cardiologist or primary care provider. 

Strengthening the heart
Consistent physical activity can strengthen the heart muscle. According to Dr. Iucci, “Physical activity helps to increase the functional capability of the heart and helps to pump oxygen.”  That is very important after any procedure as well. “If a patient had a bypass, multiple stentings or maybe they had a prolonged hospitalization, we will send them for cardiac rehabilitation or physical therapy.” 

Dr. Iucci said the more active you can be, the better. “Patients will do better after a procedure if they are active. In the long run, it will only help everyone to remain active,” said Dr. Iucci. “As we age, it is likely that some type of issue with arteries or blood pressure may develop. If the person has been active and cuts their risk factors, like smoking, limiting processed food, eating less meat and adopting a diet plan that includes more vegetables and fruit, they’ll have a better outcome. Get high blood pressure and diabetes under control and get the cholesterol down, they are going to recover quicker.” 

Returning to your normal with cardiac rehab
After a procedure, such as bypass surgery, ablation, or angioplasty, the next phase of the journey to a healthier and stronger heart is going to take effort and another team of dedicated professionals: the cardiac rehab team. 

Chris Kozmor, RN, BSN, M.Ed., director of Shore Medical Center’s Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center in Somers Point, New Jersey, said, “Once a patient is referred to us by any physician, not only cardiologists, we sit down and talk about their goals and lifestyle changes. We also talk about their previous level of activity,” said Kozmor. “We take everything into consideration when preparing a plan for each patient. If they smoke we tell them flat out, they cannot smoke. We look at all of their risk factors so we can map out a plan that will work for them.”

Kozmor explained the program, which is covered by most insurance carriers, runs for three months. There is an initial assessment followed by 35 visits to the cardiac rehab center. “Each patient is monitored while there. If during the course of the program if there is an issue with blood pressure, or a spike in their heart rate, we see it and we are in touch with the patient’s medical team,” said Kozmor. 

To make an appointment with Dr. Gene Iucci at Penn Cardiology-Somers Point, 155 Medical Center Way in Somers Point, NJ, call 609-365-3100 or visit www.pennmedicine.org.

The Shore Medical Center Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center is located at 710 Centre Street in Somers Point. For more information call 609-653-4677.