Getting older: how age can impact our circulation

It’s no secret that as we age we may notice deterioration in our fitness levels or changes in our physical appearance. But what’s happening on the inside?

As we get older, our circulatory system becomes less efficient, which may impact on our overall health. Here we look at ways in which the ageing process affects circulation, and measures we can all take to improve our blood flow.

Change starts young

Even younger adults can experience changes to the cardiovascular system associated with age. Changes to the heart and blood vessels may start as early as age 20. These may include changes to the shape of the heart, thickening of blood vessels or a change in the heart rate.

Your circulatory system has a direct impact on your health. Your heart pumps blood around the body through a network of veins and capillaries which deliver oxygen and nutrients to your organs, and extract carbon monoxide. Any problems with circulation will have a direct impact on your health.

Some of the changes that can negatively impact our circulation are lifestyle or health related. But ageing also plays a part and can affect your circulatory system in many different ways:

Loss of elasticity

When we’re younger, our arteries and capillaries have more elasticity, meaning they can cope well with stretching and adapting to maximise the efficiency of our blood flow. In the elderly, these conduits get fatigued and damaged, making it harder for the heart to pump blood through them efficiently. Arteries and capillaries may also stiffen (calcify) and thicken over time.

As the heart continues to try to provide our organs with the nutrients they need, it needs to work harder to pump blood effectively through these smaller and less flexible channels. This can put extra strain on the heart. It can also lead to an increase in blood pressure.

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Diabetes

According to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare “almost half of people with diabetes in Australia are aged over 65.” We become more prone to type 2 diabetes as we age, as our bodies become less tolerant to glucose (although according to the National Library of Medicine it is not clear whether this is due to biological ageing or environmental/lifestyle factors). ‘Islets’ on our pancreas that release insulin to lower blood glucose may also stop functioning as well as we get older. Diabetes can affect our circulation as high glucose levels may lead to fatty deposits forming within your blood vessels restricting blood flow.

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Decrease in physical activity

As we age, we may find it harder to exercise, or may simply have a less active lifestyle on retirement. Low activity levels may contribute to poor circulation.

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Heart condition

Elderly people are more likely to suffer from heart conditions, which may affect circulation.

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High blood pressure

As our arterial system becomes less elastic and our arteries thicken, our heart has to work harder to pump blood around the system. High blood pressure is more common as we get older.

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Obesity/overweight

Changes to our metabolism are thought to increase the chance of weight gain as we age. This can, in turn, have a negative effect on circulation.

How poor circulation affects our overall health

Poor circulation can make you feel tired, or can cause physical changes such as hair loss. You may notice coldness or discolouration in your hands and feet, or notice that any cuts or grazes don’t heal as well as you’d expect.

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The good news

While we can’t reverse the ageing process, we can improve our overall health and wellbeing to avoid or minimise the risk of some of the lifestyle factors that may exacerbate the problem.

Exercising more regularly, making sure we see our GP if we’re worried about diabetes and improving our diet if necessary should all help to improve our overall health, and minimise the risk of additional circulatory problems.

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