Have you checked your blood pressure lately? High blood pressure is one of the most common health concerns people deal with as they grow older. A little over one in five people between the ages of 20 and 79 meets the criteria for hypertension, while more than half of all people over the age of 60 have high blood pressure.
According to one source, 90% of men and women will develop hypertension if they live long enough. Obviously, the frequency of high blood pressure increases in frequency with age, although young people, especially those with a strong family history, can have it too. The incidence of high blood pressure rapidly rises in men once they reach the age of 45 and women around the age of 55.
High Blood Pressure: A Damaging Health Condition
As you may know, high blood pressure is a disease that silently damages blood vessels and creates increased resistance inside arteries that forces the heart to work harder. Ongoing blood vessel injury, due to hypertension, damages vessels that carry blood and oxygen to the heart as well as other organs like the kidneys, and can lead to heart attack, kidney failure or stroke. The added resistance your heart has to work against when you have high blood pressure can eventually lead to heart failure.
High blood pressure can cause other problems too. Damage to the walls of blood vessels can cause portions of the vessel to dilate, creating an aneurysm that can rupture, leading to devastating consequences in many cases. In other words, untreated high blood pressure can do widespread damage!
So common is high blood pressure in older people that some people call it a disease of aging – but why does it become more common with age and is there anything you can do to prevent it?
Blood Vessels Change with Age
The reason you’re more likely to have high blood pressure in your 60s than in your 20s is that the arteries that carry blood from your heart to all the organs in your body become stiffer with age. As arteries stiffen, they become rigid and no longer have the normal “give and take” that characterizes “younger” blood vessels. It takes more force to expand stiff arteries, so your heart has to work harder to pump blood through stiff blood vessels and the blood vessels themselves become more susceptible to damage.
Why do arteries become stiffer with age? Blood vessels lose some of their elasticity with age, so the vessel becomes more rigid. Cells that line the walls of the arteries called endothelial cells also begin to “misbehave.” These cells don’t just cover the interior of blood vessels – they’re highly active, producing chemicals like nitric oxide that cause the vessels to dilate and allow more blood to flow through. When endothelial cells don’t produce enough nitric oxide and other chemicals that help keep the lining of the blood vessel healthy and supple, it’s referred to as endothelial dysfunction, a phenomenon that’s strongly linked with heart disease and stroke.
Risk Factors for Stiff Arteries
Interestingly one factor that seems to make arteries stiffer is being overweight or obese. Researchers at the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Center in Imperial College London discovered that young adults who carry more body fat tend to have flexible, more elastic blood vessels, but the tide turns after the age of 50 when overweight and obese men and women are more prone towards arterial stiffening. Studies also show people with metabolic syndrome and type 2-diabetes have worse endothelial function and greater arterial stiffening, which partially explains why their risk for heart disease is higher.
More recently, attention has turned to the smooth muscle cells that line blood vessels as a possible contributor to arterial stiffening. Blood vessels have three layers: the innermost layer, called the tunica intima, a middle layer, called the tunica media, and an outermost layer, the tunica externa. Changes to smooth muscle cells that make up the tunica media may also play a yet undescribed role in arterial stiffening and loss of elasticity.
Can You Prevent Arterial Stiffening?
If you’re concerned about your arteries becoming more rigid, there’s something you can do to keep them flexible – exercise. More than one study shows regular aerobic exercise slows down the loss of arterial elasticity and helps keep blood vessels healthier with age. In fact, one study showed regular physical activity can REVERSE arterial stiffness in people with type 2 diabetes.
As you might expect, diet impacts endothelial function, which in turn affects arterial stiffness. Research shows the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, fish and moderate amounts of wine, improves endothelial function and is linked with a lower risk for heart disease. Dietary antioxidants also improve endothelial function, based on some research.
In terms of specific foods, certain nuts, including pistachios and walnuts, improves endothelial function and how blood vessels behave, whereas foods high in sugar may have a negative effect on blood vessel health. One indulgence you can enjoy and still keep your blood vessels healthy is unsweetened cacoa powder or dark chocolate. Catechins in dark chocolate boost the release of nitric oxide from endothelial cells, thereby helping arteries dilate.
The best approach to keeping the lining of your blood vessels healthy is to enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables and supplement your diet with a handful of nuts and a square of dark chocolate with a high cacao content each day.
The Bottom Line
Yes, arteries stiffen with age, but you can help them retain their elasticity by doing regular aerobic exercise and eating a Mediterranean diet that emphasizes whole foods. Cook your foods in healthy sources of fat, like olive oil, as long as you’re keeping the heat low. There’s a lot you can do from a lifestyle standpoint to reduce arterial stiffening and lower your risk for developing high blood pressure as you age. It all begins with exercising and eating healthy!
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