Heart Disease in the Elderly
Heart attack, stroke and many other heart diseases involve the buildup of cholesterol. Cholesterol hardens and narrows the vascular system, so it restricts blood flow. This deprives the whole body of oxygen and could also lead to life-threatening blood clots.
Caregiving for seniors with heart disease generally involves supporting lifestyle changes. The following changes can improve quality of life and reduce the risk of further complications:
- Reduce stressful thinking
- Eat well
- Stop smoking
- Exercise more
Caregivers also help these patients manage their medications.
Types of Heart Disease
Types of heart disease detailed below are heart attack and stroke. Also mentioned are congestive heart failure, arrhythmia and heart valve problems.
What causes heart attacks? Heart attacks can result from blood clots, spasms and arterial rips.
- A heart attack most often results from a blood clot. The clot blocks the flow of blood, which starves the heart of oxygen and usually causes some of the muscle to die.
- Heart attacks may also involve spasms that prevent blood flow. Spasms could be triggered by tobacco, drugs or mental stress.
- In rare cases a heart attack is caused by a spontaneous rip in the artery.
The Role of Cholesterol
Dangerous blood clots are more likely to form when cholesterol lines the circulatory system. When cholesterol plaque breaks away from a vessel, a blood clot may form at the site and then travel to the heart, causing a heart attack.
Cholesterol can generally be controlled with lifestyle changes. Therefore these are primary areas for a heart attack caregiver's attention.
- Cardiovascular exercise can increase “good cholesterol” (HDL), which helps remove “bad cholesterol” (LDL) from the bloodstream. Having a lower LDL level could slow, stop or reverse the buildup of plaque on artery walls — and therefore slow, stop or reverse some forms of heart/cardiovascular disease.
- Diet can help reduce LDL. Oats, walnuts and other foods have been proven to lower cholesterol. In some cases this is because plant sterols (plant cholesterol) bind to the body's cholesterol receptors, leaving “bad cholesterol” in food with no place to go but out. Manufacturers have started to fortify various foods such as tortilla chips and orange juice with plant sterols.
The Role of Tobacco
Completely quitting smoking can dramatically increase your chance at long life. Cigarette smoke is tied to heart disease partly because chemicals and compounds in tobacco corrode blood vessels, which increases the likelihood of blood clots forming. After a person stops smoking, blood vessels may be able to heal.
Tobacco contributes to poor senior health in many other ways, such as reducing the concentration of oxygen in the blood, and inflaming the lining of the lungs. You can learn more about smoking, secondhand smoke and heart disease from the CDC.
The most common type of stroke is ischemic stroke. It involves deprivation of oxygen to the brain, which kills brain cells, and is usually caused by a blood clot obstructing an artery. Another type of stroke is hemorrhagic stroke. It is caused by a blood vessel bursting within the brain, and it's usually the result of hypertension. In both cases, advice mentioned above for heart attack applies: exercise and specific foods can help a person regain strength, and quitting tobacco smoking can dramatically reduce the risk of further health problems.
The specific effects of a stroke depend on which brain cells are damaged. Caregivers focus on rehabilitation and preventing another stroke. Sometimes the damaged cells slowly repair themselves or have their functions taken over by other neurons.
Three other common forms of heart disease are arrhythmia, heart valve problems and congestive heart failure:
- Arrhythmia is a slow, fast or erratic heart rate. You can learn about arrhythmia at Heart.org.
- Heart valve problems involve blood not flowing properly from the heart. For example, one type of heart valve problem called regurgitation involves blood moving backward through a valve that fails to close tightly. Valve problems can limit blood flow throughout the body. Detailed information is at Medicine.net.
- Congestive heart failure doesn't mean that the heart stops working, but that it works less effectively. This means that the body does not receive as much oxygen as it should. Long-term damage to the brain and other parts of the body could result. Caregiving for seniors with congestive heart failure is generally like that for heart attack and stroke patients, with rehabilitation through lifestyle changes being a primary goal.
Typically caregivers for seniors with heart disease help them build endurance to get more enjoyment out of daily life. They also help patients manage their medications and make choices that reduce stress on the heart to prevent additional problems. Here are some resources and tips.
Exercise for Seniors with Heart Disease
Most older adults with heart disease can safely exercise, and doing so increases the lifespan. As a caregiver you can help the senior identify activities they would enjoy, choose appropriate workout clothes, and exercise safely. See the following websites for exercise guides:
Remember that while hydration is important for any exerciser, it's especially important for seniors and people with heart disease. Better hydration reduces stress on the heart, kidneys and other organs.
Foods for Seniors with Heart Disease
Patients with heart disease often need to change longtime dietary habits. Reducing sodium, avoiding trans-fats, and eliminating red meat are common recommendations from medical teams.
Caregivers can help patients discover healthful foods that taste delicious. Sometimes this involves a simple ingredient substitution in a recipe they already enjoy. For instance:
- Unsweetened applesauce can be an impressive replacement for butter in recipes for baked goods.
- Plain Greek yogurt can replace sour cream and mayonnaise in vegetable dips and other favorite recipes.
Caregivers can also help seniors experiment with cinnamon, garlic, oregano, basil, dill and other herbs and spices when cooking. The extra flavoring can help decrease the person's desire for sodium. Vegan and vegetarian recipe books tend to make good use of herbs and spices. You can also find recipes at Heart.org.
Support Groups for Heart Disease Patients
Patients who have experienced heart disease can benefit from talking with one another. As a caregiver, you can help connect the patient with the American Heart Association program Mended Hearts. Mended Hearts arranges support groups and home visits.