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Clinical Implications Of Physiological Changes In The Aging Heart

K. G. Pugh, Jeanne Y. Wei
Published 2001 · Medicine

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Elderly individuals experience a disproportionate burden from cardiovascular disease. Global changes in aging will have a significant impact on the future of medical practice. However, most physicians have little formal training in geriatric medicine and sometimes fail to distinguish disease states from normal aging. Increasingly, it is recognised that a sedentary lifestyle may be responsible for a large fraction of the so-called ‘age-related’ changes in the cardiovascular system. Nonetheless, well characterised changes do occur in most individuals with aging. Loss of myocytes with subsequent hypertrophy of the remaining cells is usually observed. Calcification involving the conduction and valvular apparatus is seen in most elderly individuals and may predispose to the common arrhythmias of old age. Age-related loss of arterial compliance contributes to isolated systolic hypertension and left ventricular hypertrophy.Despite these changes, for the majority of healthy older adults, cardiac output is well maintained in the basal state through use of the Frank-Starling principle, in the setting of reduced early diastolic filling. Myocardial relaxation is slowed in part due to age-related changes in the sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase pump. Elevated blood levels of catecholamines contribute to desensitisation to noradrenergic stimulation and this is associated with an age-related decline in maximum achievable heart rate. Changes in the baroreceptor reflex function and decreased sodium conservation may predispose some individuals to orthostatic and postprandial hypotension.The aetiology of cardiovascular aging is under intense study. The most likely mechanisms involve the result of cumulative damage mediated through a variety of insults. Oxidative stress, non-enzymatic glycation, inflammation and changes in cardiovascular gene expression all seem to influence cardiovascular aging.The benefits of exercise continue to be discovered. Endurance-type training has been shown to have a dramatic impact on parameters of cardiovascular aging. Favourable effects are seen in maximum oxygen consumption, diastolic filling, relaxation and arterial stiffness. Some changes such as the maximum heart rate response do not appear to change with conditioning. Pharmacotherapy may afford the opportunity to influence the aging process. Drugs that can reduce age-associated arterial stiffness, cardiac fibrosis and ventricular hypertrophy should prove useful. Antioxidants continue to be a topic of great interest and require more study.Despite some well described changes with aging, most elderly individuals maintain the opportunity for improved cardiovascular function through conditioning. Early recognition and treatment of diseases that are distinguishable from normal aging, including hypertension and atherosclerosis, together with preventive efforts, should reduce the predicted trends in cardiovascular morbidity and mortality among the aged.
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