10 Ways Your Heart Changes After 40
When it comes to your ticker, knowledge may be the best medicine.
While there are countless visible factors associated with the aging process—a gray hair here, a wrinkle there—when it comes to your health after 40, it's what you can't see that can hurt you most. In terms of your heart health, 40 is a pivotal age, when serious, albeit invisible, changes start taking place in your cardiovascular system.
"How you treat your body and your heart is how you're going to wind up, health-wise, at age 40," says Robert Greenfield, M.D., cardiologist and medical director of non-invasive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Now, certainly there are natural processes that occur, but you can slow the heart aging process or accelerate it." So, before you exacerbate an existing problem or create a new one, discover these ways your heart changes after 40.
Your heart muscle gets stiffer.
While firm muscles may be a good thing when they're in other parts of your body, if your heart is stiffening, that's not a good sign—but it is a common one in individuals over 40. "As you get older, your heart can weaken—not just by getting flabby and weak, but by getting stiff," says Greenfield. "Stiff hearts are not healthy hearts."
Your arteries thicken and harden.
Your arteries can pay the price for not-so-healthy living as you get closer to 40. "Arteries get clogged with cholesterol and arteries get stiffer," says Greenfield. According to researchers at the National Institutes of Aging's Laboratory of Cardiovascular Science, arterial thickness tends to increase significantly in adult life, with a pronounced uptick between ages 20 and 40.
You're at greater risk for an irregular heartbeat.
Those butterflies in your chest might be a sign of something serious if you're over 40. A study published in the journal Circulation reveals that, while a person's lifetime risk of developing an irregular heartbeat is one in six, that number jumps to one in four among individuals over 40.
Menopause reduces the protective effect estrogen once had.
Estrogen may have had a protective effect on your heart earlier in life, but women over 40 can't necessarily count on those benefits continuing. "When women have the change of life and lose the protective effect of estrogen, they tend to take on male cardiovascular characteristics," says Greenfield. In fact, while female heart disease once went overlooked, it's now the leading cause of death among women.
"Because women live longer than men, they have more heart attacks than men," says Greenfield. "Heart disease is much more common as a cause of death [among women] than breast cancer."
Stress causes more cardiovascular issues.
If you want to make your heart healthier after 40, it's time to start looking at your risk factors for heart disease—namely stress. "Stress has an impact on the cardiovascular system and the heart as well. When we stress out, we produce more adrenaline and more cortisone, which can have long term ill effects," says Greenfield. In fact, research published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiologists suggests a significant correlation between psychological stress and heart attack risk, and the risk only rises with age.
Diabetes increases your heart attack risk.
While type 2 diabetes can strike at any age, a person's risk of developing the disease increases dramatically over 40—and the American Diabetes Association recommends a regular diabetes screening for all adults over 45. So, what does this have to do with your heart? According to Greenfield, "Diabetes can accelerate heart disease and the incidence of stroke."
You're more likely to develop high blood pressure.
When that age-related arterial stiffness in your heart strikes, it doesn't occur alone. Those stiffened arteries can spur the development of high blood pressure, a condition whose parameters have recently changed. While the old threshold for "healthy" blood pressure was 140/90, "The American Heart Association came out with new guidelines and we think that to really be healthy and to decrease heart disease, being closer to 120/80 is a healthy reading," says Greenfield. And if you think those high blood pressure readings are no big deal, think again: "It's actually the main cause of congestive heart failure."
Your heart may get larger.
It's not just your waistline that gets bigger as you approach middle age—your heart muscle may get larger, too. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, men's heart muscles tend to become larger with age (while women's typically stay the same size or shrink).
Your heart rate may slow.
There are two groups who can reliably count on their heart rate slowing: serious athletes and individuals over 40. However, in the latter group, that's not always a good sign. As people age, they're more likely to develop bradycardia, or a slow heart rate, which can lead to serious health problems over time, including chest pain, blood pressure problems, or even heart failure.
A lack of sleep can increase existing heart damage.
If you want to keep your heart healthy as you age, it's time to say so long to those all-nighters you used to pull in college. "Getting less than six hours a night can become a long-term risk factor for heart disease" as you age, says Greenfield. "The body can't repair itself in that time—and that includes the heart as well." And if you want to make your heart stronger in the long run, discover these 40 Ways to Prevent Heart Disease After 40.
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