Older women can have heart problems just as older men can, and providing your doctor with a family history of heart disease is very important, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Your heart is a strong muscle about the size of the palm of your hand. Just like an engine makes a car go, the heart keeps your body running. The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood through a network of blood vessels called arteries (taking blood away from the heart) and veins (bringing blood back to the heart).

Some changes in the heart and blood vessels are normal as you grow older, but over time, disease can damage your blood vessels and your heart, states the NIA.

A common problem for older people is arteriosclerosis. This is a stiffening of the arteries that happens, in part, because of growing older. Atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty deposits as plaques, is another cause. When plaque builds up along the walls of the arteries, there is less space for blood to flow. This makes it harder for blood to get to all the parts of the body that need it, including the heart itself.

Other changes to the heart happen as you age. For example, to help the heart pump blood through stiffer blood vessels, some parts of the heart wall thicken.

The size of the four sections of the heart also changes. So do the valves (door-like parts that open and close to control the flow of blood between those sections). The number of heartbeats each minute when you are resting (the heart rate) does not change as you age, but the heart can’t beat as fast when you are physically active or stressed as it did when you were younger, according to the NIA.

There are many different kinds of heart disease. Plaque build-up is often to blame, but there are other causes too. For example, choices you might make every day can lead to damage to artery walls. Do you smoke? Do you drink a lot of alcohol? Are you overweight? Do you spend the day sitting at a desk or in front of your television? Do you avoid doing exercise? Do you have diabetes or high blood pressure that is not under control? Are you under a lot of stress?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, making changes might help you prevent or delay heart disease. Things you can’t control, like your family history, might also increase your risk of heart disease. But even so, leading a heart-healthy lifestyle might help you avoid or delay serious illness.

One sign that you are at risk for heart disease is your waist measurement. Extra fat around the middle of your body increases risk. A good way to check that is simply to measure your waist. A man’s risk of heart disease is increased if his waist measures more than 40 inches. A woman’s risk is increased at 35 inches.

Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms; that’s why regular checkups with a health care provider are important. Your doctor will check things like cholesterol, a fat that can add to plaques in your arteries, and your blood pressure. The doctor might also do a blood test for CRP (c-reactive protein). You might also have an ECG/EKG, or an electrocardiogram. This is a test that looks at electrical activity in your heart.

Everyone should know the outward warning signs of heart disease. Chest pain should be taken seriously. Pain in the chest, shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back can be a symptom of heart disease. If you have heart disease, you might feel chest pain during physical activity. But it can have other causes too, so it is important to check with your doctor to learn what is triggering yours.

For more information, visit National Institutes of Health, a senior-friendly Web site from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.

Information, www.nihseniorhealth.gov/.

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