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Effects of Aging on the Heart and Blood Vessels

By

Jessica I. Gupta

, MD, University of Michigan Health;


Michael J. Shea

, MD, Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan

Last full review/revision May 2022| Content last modified Sep 2022
CLICK HERE FOR THE PROFESSIONAL VERSION

The heart undergoes changes with aging. Many changes are due to the development of heart disorders, which become more common with aging. Other changes are due to aging itself. (See also Biology of the Heart Biology of the Heart The heart and blood vessels constitute the cardiovascular (circulatory) system. The heart pumps the blood to the lungs so it can pick up oxygen and then pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body.... read more .)

As people age, the heart tends to enlarge slightly, developing thicker walls and slightly larger chambers. The increase in size is mainly due to an increase in the size of individual heart muscle cells. Thicker walls also become stiffer, which does not allow the chambers to fill with as much blood before each ventricle pumps. The age-related stiffening of the heart walls causes the left ventricle to not fill as well and can sometimes lead to heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure is a disorder in which the heart is unable to keep up with the demands of the body, leading to reduced blood flow, back-up (congestion) of blood in the veins and lungs, and/or... read more Heart Failure (HF) (called diastolic heart failure or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction), especially in older people with other diseases such as high blood pressure High Blood Pressure High blood pressure (hypertension) is persistently high pressure in the arteries. Often no cause for high blood pressure can be identified, but sometimes it occurs as a result of an underlying... read more High Blood Pressure , obesity Obesity Obesity is excess body weight. Obesity is influenced by a combination of factors, which usually results in consuming more calories than the body needs. These factors may include physical inactivity... read more Obesity , and diabetes Diabetes Mellitus (DM) Diabetes mellitus is a disorder in which the body does not produce enough or respond normally to insulin, causing blood sugar (glucose) levels to be abnormally high. Urination and thirst are... read more .

During rest, the older heart functions in almost the same way as a younger heart, except the heart rate (number of times the heart beats within a minute) is slightly lower. Also, during exercise, older people's heart rate does not increase as much as in younger people.

The walls of the arteries and arterioles become thicker, and the space within the arteries expands slightly. Elastic tissue within the walls of the arteries and arterioles is lost. Together, these changes make the vessels stiffer and less resilient (see figure . Since the arteries and arterioles are less elastic, blood pressure cannot adjust quickly when people stand, and older people are at risk for dizziness or in some cases fainting when they stand up suddenly.

Because arteries and arterioles become less elastic as people age, they cannot relax as quickly during the rhythmic pumping of the heart. As a result, blood pressure increases more when the heart contracts (during systole)—sometimes above normal—than it does in younger people. Abnormally high blood pressure during systole with normal blood pressure during diastole is very common among older people. This disorder is called isolated systolic hypertension High Blood Pressure High blood pressure (hypertension) is persistently high pressure in the arteries. Often no cause for high blood pressure can be identified, but sometimes it occurs as a result of an underlying... read more High Blood Pressure . (See also Biology of the Blood Vessels Biology of the Blood Vessels The heart and blood vessels constitute the cardiovascular (circulatory) system. The blood circulating in this system delivers oxygen and nutrients to the tissues of the body and removes waste... read more .)

Many of the effects of aging on the heart and blood vessels can be reduced by regular exercise Exercise in Older Adults At least 75% of people over age 65 do not exercise at recommended levels despite the known health benefits of exercise including Longer survival Improved quality of life (for example, endurance... read more . Exercise helps people maintain cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular fitness as they age. Exercise is beneficial regardless of the age at which it is started.

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