You’ve likely seen ads on TV for heart-healthy foods, heart monitors and a variety of pills to solve many different heart conditions. Maybe a family member or someone close to you has experienced a heart attack or stroke. These are all reminders that heart health is important. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and many factors can impact your risk of the disease.
So, when should you start thinking about monitoring and improving your own heart health? Right now.
“Don’t wait,” says Justin Guest. With more than 20 years of experience developing fitness and engaging programs for older adults, Guest has his eye trained on the latest heart-health research and the most effective ways to develop healthy habits. As Vice President of Engage Life for Holiday by Atria, Guest develops programs for whole-person well-being. His role focuses on creating opportunities to learn about topics from mental health to heart health, as well as helping older adults stay active in their communities. And he’ll tell you: All of these things are connected.
If you’re asking: How can I prevent heart disease? You’re in the right place. In this blog, Guest shares his top six tips for maintaining heart health for seniors, so you can keep doing the things you enjoy.
6 heart-healthy tips
- Do what you love for a healthy heart
- Move more, move often
- Start a heart-healthy diet for seniors
- Don’t skimp on sleep
- Get closer to nature
- Be your own heart-health advocate
1. Do what you love for a healthy heart.
There are good reasons that Guest’s first suggestion is to follow your heart. First, if you enjoy your good habits, you’re more likely to stick with them. Second, feeling good is good for you, and even the scientists agree.
Studies show that stress increases the risk of serious heart problems. In addition to the immediate impact of high-stress situations, chronic stress can cause poor sleep and get in the way of making healthy choices, like exercising regularly and eating right – all of which impact heart health.
Fortunately, when it comes to stress relief, laughter is truly one of the best medicines. The Mayo Clinic® found that laughter decreases heart rate and blood pressure, increases oxygen intake and even improves the immune system. Guest recommends sharing a laugh over recreational activities, while trying something new, or even – if you must – while watching a favorite TV show.
Many studies have shown that friendship is critical for maintaining good health. Whether it’s because people laugh more easily with others, eat better with friends or are more likely to stick to a workout if they have a buddy, there are endless heart-healthy reasons to do the things you enjoy with the people you love.
2. Move more, move often.
Doctors recommend 30 minutes of daily exercise to help reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes and a long list of other health issues. Fortunately, recent studies show that even if you don’t start until later in life, you can still reap the benefits of regular exercise.
Move to maintain functional movement.
When Guest talks about moving more, he says to start with your daily life. Activities can range from walking the dog to light gardening. If your favorite coffee shop is within walking distance, for example, consider keeping the car parked and going on foot.
“Even standing during activities makes a difference,” says Guest.
If you spend a lot of time online, for instance, consider using a standing desk. Look for the small opportunities to stay active – they add up.
Try heart-healthy exercises for seniors.
Whether you’re a lifelong cyclist or thinking of trying your first yoga class for seniors, aim for that golden 30 minutes of exercise each day.
One of the best exercise plans for cardiovascular health combines regular aerobic exercise with twice-a-week resistance training. Aerobic exercise helps improve blood pressure and heart rate, cardiac output, and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. Adding resistance training helps build strength so you can feel stable and secure as you engage in a variety of activities.
According to Guest, the important thing is to get out and get moving. “Pilates, swimming, hiking,” he notes, “are all great options for getting your heart rate up – in a good way.”
3. Start a heart-healthy diet for seniors.
It’s widely agreed that diet and exercise are an important heart-healthy combination.
“Type 2 diabetes is 100% preventable,” Guest says. “But the more unhealthy weight you carry – such as fat, rather than muscle – the higher your risk is for developing it.” Getting enough movement, eating well and maintaining a healthy body weight will help you manage your glucose levels and improve blood flow and overall health.
The best diet for senior heart health.
Cure-all diets come and go. That’s why many experts recommend following general guidelines for healthy eating, rather than the strict rules of the latest fad.
The Mayo Clinic recommends the Mediterranean diet as a heart-healthy option for seniors. Based on traditional foods found in cultures around the Mediterranean Sea, this heart-healthy diet focuses on plant-based meals and uses healthy oils, such as olive oil, as the primary source of fat. Proteins come from a mix of beans, nuts and fish, and processed foods and sugars are consumed rarely.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t your only option, though. The Okinawa diet and Nordic diet also focus on increasing fruits and vegetables, using healthy fats, and limiting the use of grains, sugar and processed foods.
Make small changes for a big impact.
Making simple changes in your diet – such as preparing meals at home rather than going to a restaurant – gives you more control over the ingredients you consume. Cooking at home also creates an opportunity to get in some extra steps. If you’re going to buy processed or premade items, take a moment to read the labels – you may be surprised at how much additional salt and sugar is added to the foods in your regular diet.
Guest’s biggest tip is to enjoy everything in moderation. “If you’re at a party, have a piece of cake,” he says. “But try to eat more vegetables and less sugar generally.”
4. Don’t skimp on sleep.
Getting enough sleep isn’t just important for memory and problem solving – though it is important for that. More broadly, lack of sleep is linked to increased risk for type 2 diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. This is partly because blood pressure naturally lowers during sleep, and because a lack of sleep may impact the part of the brain responsible for signaling hunger, it can cause people to overeat.
Sleep apnea is a common disorder associated with a long list of heart-related diseases, including hypertension, stroke and an irregular heartbeat. Because of the many connections between disordered sleep and heart health, sleep apnea is being explored as an early indicator of heart disease.
Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, Guest recommends getting between seven and eight hours of good sleep each night, and talking to your doctor if you’re struggling to get adequate shut-eye.
5. Take care of your heart to take care of your mind.
There’s a strong correlation between stroke and dementia, and it’s no coincidence. Given that the brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen – oxygen that’s delivered in blood pumped by the heart through arteries – it’s no wonder that taking care of your heart is important for avoiding cognitive decline.
While heart health is good for your brain, staying mindful is also important for senior heart health. Like laughing mentioned above, there are many things you can do to calm your mind and care for your heart.
If you’re not sure where to start, Guest recommends:
- Meditation and prayer
- Reading, writing, art and games
- Moderation in watching TV
Guest also makes a point to note the many benefits of spending time outside.
Get closer to nature.
Studies have found that time spent in nature can encourage an increase in physical activity while reducing stress and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Nature is proven to help heart health,” Guest says. “Your blood pressure lowers, your breathing is better – there is a peace in nature, and you can get back to who you are.” Guest also notes that nature is more accessible than you may think. “If you can go for a hike in the woods, that’s awesome. If you can’t, go to the park. Walk or sit with friends outdoors. Take a moment to observe what’s around you.”
Whether you nurture your heart to take care of your brain or the other way around, these two important organs are critical for maintaining a high quality of life.
6. Be your own heart-health advocate.
You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know it’s there.
Because heart disease symptoms aren’t always clear, you may not know if you’re developing an issue or if you’re at increased risk for stroke or heart attack. That’s why regular checkups with your doctor are critical for monitoring the well-being of your heart.
When you go for your next visit, Guest suggests making sure your doctor checks the following.
- Cholesterol – a fatty substance that can clog arteries
- Blood pressure – how much force your blood exerts as it travels through your arteries
- Blood glucose levels – how much glucose, a form of sugar, is in your blood
According to the National Institute on Aging, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you should make it a point to discuss them with your doctor:
- Pain – in chest or elsewhere
- Trouble breathing
- Cold sweats
- Difficulty performing normal activities
Using a Fitbit® or a similar device can help you take a more active role in your well-being by letting you monitor your own heart rate, sleep patterns and intensity of exercise. In addition to measuring your progress as you work toward goals, it will also provide you with information that you can reference when talking to your doctor.
How to keep your heart healthy as you age.
“Every day that you improve your heart health,” Guest says, “is another day you’ll get to spend doing things with the people you care about.”
While Guest acknowledges that sometimes getting blood pressure under control requires medication, and that high cholesterol can be hereditary, he notes that making positive lifestyle changes – like exercising and eating right – are important steps everyone can take toward protecting the health of their heart.
If you’re looking to make exercise, chef-prepared meals and fun a daily part of your retirement lifestyle, visit a Holiday by Atria community near you and experience independent senior living.