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Healthy Living: Helping your heart get better with age

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It’s 4 p.m. and 75-year-old Ray is chatting with his visitors about his operation while he prepares to change out of his hospital gown and go home. Ray just had a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) 24 hours earlier, but you would never guess it by the way he excitedly reports his procedure.

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement is available for people with aortic valve stenosis. Aortic valve stenosis happens when the heart’s aortic valve narrows, blocking blood from flowing through the major artery leading out of the heart and throughout the body.

Shortness of breath and fatigue are the most common symptoms of aortic valve stenosis, which primarily affects people in their seventies and eighties. Although standard medicine still prescribes traditional open-heart valve replacement surgery, patients recover extremely quickly with TAVR and it is a good technique for those who would otherwise have been a poor candidate to undergo a major operation.

Instead of making a large incision in a patient’s chest to replace the valve, surgeons now insert a catheter only a few millimeters wide into the aorta, the largest artery in the body. They squeeze a tightly compacted replacement valve through the catheter and thread it toward the beating heart.

This wasn’t Ray’s first heart operation. Ten years earlier, surgeons replaced his aortic valve in a standard open-heart procedure that kept him in the hospital for a month, a week of which was in intensive care, followed by six months of recovery. When that replacement valve began to malfunction, he knew it was time for another surgery, but his cardiologist recommended a gentler way to fix it. Now, Ray is leaving the hospital a short 24 hours later.

Ray is just one of a fast growing number of seniors whose lives have been extended and enhanced by medical advances. New technology, surgical techniques and approaches to medicine now enable older patients to face less risk and faster recovery when they undergo surgery. Many times, if patients have other illnesses, there are programs to medically optimize their overall health so they can safely undergo the surgery.

Research also shows specific factors that can help recover after surgery, such as:

• Keep moving: Exercise at least 30 minutes a day.

Eat healthy meals: The food we eat makes up our bodies. If we are missing nutrients, our bodies are more susceptible to damage or illness. As we age, protein and antioxidants are especially important to prevent frailty and protect from free radicals.

• Maintain a healthy weight: A body mass index between 25-32 is linked to the lowest rate of mortality and better recovery from illness and infection.

• Get adequate sleep: Between 5 to 9 hours of sleep helps maintain the immune system and brain regeneration.

• Reduce or quit smoking: The body can regenerate and repair at any age, and we know that smoking is undeniably linked to negative health outcomes, primarily lung diseases like asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer, and cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke.

• Moderate alcohol intake: Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to health problems in almost every part of the body, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and the regulation of metabolism.

• Increase social connectedness: Meaningful relationships give a sense of purpose; decrease subjective age; improve mental health; and make life more fun and joyful!

By practicing a few of these factors, you can live a healthier, longer life and even get better with age. The YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region partners with organizations like SilverSneakers to offer membership at low or no cost to seniors. The Y also offers exercise classes (free to members) that can help with the factors listed above, keeping you physically and socially healthy!

Dr. Gloria Winters is a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in orthopedics and exercise physiology. She is the Chief Medical Officer for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region with a focus on health care integration in the community. Contact Dr. Winters with questions or topic ideas at [email protected]

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