Saturday, August 30, 2014

Aging changes in the heart and blood vessels

Table of Contents

The heart has two sides. The right side pumps blood to the lungs to receive oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. The left side pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body.

Blood flows out of the heart through arteries, which branch out and get smaller and smaller as they go into the tissues. In the tissues, they become tiny capillaries.

Capillaries are where the blood gives up oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, and receives carbon dioxide and wastes back from the tissues. Then, the vessels begin to collect together into larger and larger veins, which return blood to the heart.

AGING CHANGES

Heart

  • The heart has a natural pacemaker system that controls the heartbeat. Some of the pathways of this system may develop fibrous tissue and fat deposits. The natural pacemaker (the SA node) loses some of its cells. These changes may result in a slightly slower heart rate.
  • A slight increase in the size of the heart, especially the left ventricle, is not uncommon. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that the chamber can hold may actually decrease despite the increased overall heart size. The heart may fill more slowly.
  • Heart changes cause the ECG of a normal, healthy older person to be slightly different than the ECG of a healthy younger adult. Abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias) such as atrial fibrillation are more common in older people. They may be caused by heart disease.
  • Normal changes in the heart include deposits of the "aging pigment," lipofuscin. The heart muscle cells degenerate slightly. The valves inside the heart, which control the direction of blood flow, thicken and become stiffer. A heart murmur caused by valve stiffness is fairly common in the elderly.

Blood vessels

  • Receptors called baroreceptors monitor the blood pressure and make changes to help maintain a fairly constant blood pressure when a person changes positions or activities. The baroreceptors become less sensitive with aging. This may explain why many older people have orthostatic hypotension, a condition in which the blood pressure falls when a person goes from lying or sitting to standing. This causes dizziness because there is less blood flow to the brain.
  • The capillary walls thicken slightly. This may cause a slightly slower rate of exchange of nutrients and wastes.
  • The main artery from the heart (aorta) becomes thicker, stiffer, and less flexible. This is probably related to changes in the connective tissue of the blood vessel wall. This makes the blood pressure higher and makes the heart work harder, which may lead to thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy). The other arteries also thicken and stiffen. In general, most elderly people experience a moderate increase in blood pressure.

Blood

  • The blood itself changes slightly with age. Normal aging causes a reduction in total body water. As part of this, there is less fluid in the bloodstream, so blood volume decreases.
  • The number of red blood cells (and correspondingly, the hemoglobin and hematocrit levels) are reduced. This contributes to fatigue. Most of the white blood cells stay at the same levels, although certain white blood cells important to immunity (lymphocytes) decrease in their number and ability to fight off bacteria. This reduces the ability to resist infection.

EFFECT OF CHANGES

Under normal circumstances, the heart continues to adequately supply all parts of the body. However, an aging heart may be slightly less able to tolerate increased workloads, because changes reduce this extra pumping ability (reserve heart function).


Review Date: 08/15/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org)