Secrets to Successful Cardiovascular Aging

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This past week, a state-of-the art review entitled “Cardiovascular Aging and Longevity” was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. As I was reading this article, I was reminded of the Annual Centenarian Luncheon Day that was launched by my colleague, Dr. Odessa Dorkins in the early 90’s.  Dr. Dorkins organized a yearly celebration for Centenarians where families were brought together throughout the greater Baltimore region. Back then, there were ~100,000 men and women worldwide who had attained the age of 100 (or older) with numbers that grew to more than 500,000 by early 2020.  Unfortunately, COVID has hit our seniors (ages 80 and above) the hardest and as a result, we are unlikely to see growth rates within the elderly population increase to recent levels for quite some time.

In 1995, I had the opportunity to participate in the luncheon and was blown away by the Centenarians and their families.  For one, the vast majority exhibited good (if not, very good) cognitive and cardiovascular function, with many still active, notwithstanding physical ailments.  Perhaps even more impressive was a shared feeling of optimism and overall positive outlook, despite many losses of friends and loved ones over the decades.  Many were highly spiritual and prayed daily, most were socially engaged with solid support networks and the overwhelming majority lived “clean” lives (minimal alcohol or smoking history). They said that while they enjoyed food, they rarely overate.  Even though these Centenarians did not live in the “Blue Zones”, so-called communities with exceptional longevity, such as Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria, Greece and Nikoya, Costa Rica, they illustrate that successful cardiovascular aging can exist in major U.S. cities and most of the world. Listed below are  5 secrets to successful cardiovascular aging shared by “youthful” Centenarians and those living in Blue Zones that we can put into daily practice…with a little luck it may increase our odds as well!

  1. Mildly Restrict Caloric Intake: Japanese Okinawans, among the first of the Blue Zone groups identified with healthy longevity consume 15-20 percent fewer calories compared to the average dietary intake in Japan.  If your caloric intake approximates 2000 kcal daily, try eliminating 300-400 calories (example: 1 plain bagel with butter equals 350 calories).
  2. Drink Coffee and/or Tea: Both products are fortified with antioxidants, reduce inflammation and improve vascular function.  Moderate intake of as little as 2 cups daily has been shown to improve cardiovascular aging.
  3. Increase Exercise: Moderate activity (example: walking at a pace of 3-4 miles per hour) improves 3 major risk factors, blood pressure, blood glucose and blood fats (triglycerides). Recent studies also suggest that physical activity slows aging by fueling the enzyme that maintains telomere length.  Telomeres are genetic “protective caps”; the longer the telomere the slower the aging process.  For example, long healthy telomeres are more commonly found in athletes and the physically active whereas telomeres tend to shrink more rapidly with a sedentary lifestyle.
  4. Reduce Emotional Stress:  Daily stress that is not managed effectively also raises the risk of telomere shortening.  Studies are beginning to emerge that activities that reduce emotional stress, such as yoga may also maintain telomere length and reduce cellular aging.
  5. Quit Smoking: It’s fair to say that you won’t find a lot of smokers in Blue Zones (otherwise they would be Gray Zones).

Michael Miller, MD is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland USA and author of “Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease published by Penguin Random House.

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