Meredith Luttrell, Ph.D
We seldom think about physical effects of aging until that first wrinkle appears. While it’s easy to associate aging with changes in appearance, changes that occur within the body, such as impaired blood vessel function, are more likely to affect the quality of life even more. Cardiovascular disease affects 1 in 3 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the risk of developing it increases with age. The term cardiovascular disease (CVD) encompasses a number of conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, and high cholesterol. Blood vessel health plays an important role in the development or prevention of CVD, and maintaining healthy vessels can help reduce the risk of developing it.
You may picture blood vessels simply as tubes that carry blood around the body and to the heart. In fact, blood vessels are essential for directing the blood to the areas of the body depending on the needs of certain tissues. When the need for blood delivery to an area of the body increases, the blood vessels supplying that area dilate, or get larger, thus allowing more blood to reach that tissue. How does this happen? When blood flow to a tissue increases, to calf muscles while walking, for example- the cells lining your blood vessels are stimulated. This triggers a rapid series of events that lead to the release of a gas called nitric oxide, which causes the surrounding smooth muscles to relax, thus causing dilation. It helps prevent stiffening of the blood vessels that is a hallmark of cardiovascular disease. It also prevents particles like cholesterol from sticking to the blood vessels that may eventually form a blockage of that blood vessel. Unfortunately, with aging, the ability to produce nitric oxide decreases, thus increasing the risk of developing CVD. So is CVD an inevitable consequence of getting older?
Not necessarily -- the good news is that you CAN improve the health of your blood vessels and reduce your risk of CVD by engaging in regular aerobic exercise, which improves the ability of your blood vessels to produce nitric oxide. Whether you enjoy walking, gardening, swimming, playing tennis, or any of a number of aerobic activities, staying active is a great way to keep your blood vessels healthy, along with all the other benefits it provides. And healthy blood vessels are essential for maintaining the quality of your life!
- Seals, DR, et al. “Habitual exercise and arterial aging.” Journal of Applied Physiology. 105: 1323-1332, 2008. http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/105/4/1323.full.pdf
- Heckman, GA, et al. “Cardiovascular Aging and Exercise in Healthy Older Adults.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. Vol. 18(6):479-485, 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19001881