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Picking up the pace after age 65 helps the heart

Published: 3:05 pm CDT, May 5, 2014

Maintaining or boosting physical activity after age 65 can improve the heart’s electrical well-being and lower heart attack risk, according to a new study.

People who walked more and faster and had more physically active leisure time had fewer irregular heart rhythms and greater heart rate variability than those who were less active, according to researchers.

Heart rate variability means changes to the amount of time between one heartbeat and the next during everyday life.

“These small differences are influenced by the health of the heart and the nervous system that regulates the heart,” said Luisa Soares-Miranda, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the Faculty of Sport at the University of Porto in Portugal. “Early abnormalities in this system are picked up by changes in heart rate variability, and these changes predict the risk of future heart attacks and death.”

The researchers evaluated 24-hour heart monitor recordings of 985 adults who averaged 71 years old when they started participating in the Cardiovascular Health Study, a study of heart disease risk factors in people 65 and older.

During the five-year study, researchers found that heart variability was better when people engaged in more physical activity and when they increased their walking pace or distance.

“Any physical activity is better than none, but maintaining or increasing your activity has added heart benefits as you age,” Soares-Miranda said. “Our results also suggest that these certain beneficial changes that occur may be reduced when physical activity is reduced.”

Researchers estimated that the difference between the highest and lowest levels of physical activity would translate into an 11 percent lower risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death.

“So if you feel comfortable with your usual physical activity, do not slow down as you get older — try to walk an extra block or walk at a faster pace,” Soares-Miranda said. “If you’re not physically active, it is never too late to start.”

The study was published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

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