Ever misplaced your eyeglasses? You need to find them, but to look for them, you need your eyeglasses, right?
Many believe this same catch-22 applies to obesity and vascular disease in older adults: If a person is obese and develops vascular disease, they need to exercise to lose weight—but their obesity prevents them from exercising.
Some would consider this a paradox, but, are they really stuck between a rock and a hard place in this situation?
Not at all. There are many simple and easy things obese older adults can do to improve their vascular health. For example, a new study shows that eliminating a mere 200 calories a day while incorporating at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise four days per week can reduce the risk of vascular disease.
In fact, 200 calories is a surprisingly small amount. In fact, most people don’t even miss it when they eliminate it from their diets. For example, it’s as minimal as eliminating 18 Pringles from the snack menu, or skipping that chocolate chip cookie, or replacing a small (1.5oz) bag of potato chips with an apple. Study author Tina Brinkley, an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, elaborates:
“These results suggest that combining exercise with modest calorie restriction – as opposed to more intensive calorie restriction or no calorie restriction – likely maximizes the benefits on vascular health, while also optimizing weight loss and improvements in body composition and body fat distribution.”
What is vascular disease?
Vascular disease includes any condition that affects your circulatory system (the network of arteries and veins that transport blood from the heart). Examples include:
- Blood clots: A blood clot called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a clot in a vein inside a muscle—usually in your lower leg, thigh or pelvis. If this clot breaks loose and travels to your lungs, it becomes a pulmonary embolism (PE), which can be deadly.
- Aneurysm: This is a bulge in the wall of any blood vessel that can collect plaque and cause a blood clot.
- Atherosclerosis: This condition is a narrowing of blood vessels due to buildup in deposits of fat and cholesterol.
How does obesity raise the risk of vascular disease?
Obesity makes exercise difficult and also increases the risk of vascular disease by altering cholesterol levels, increasing blood pressure, and causing diabetes.
1. Changes cholesterol levels: Our body has two types of cholesterol: one type increases risk of vascular disease (often referred to as “bad” cholesterol) and a “good” type that promotes vascular health. Obesity increases the “bad” cholesterol and decreases the “good” cholesterol, thus creating a double whammy on vascular health.
2. Increases blood pressure: Obesity obviously increases body mass, which then increases the amount of work the circulatory system has to do to supply the body with oxygen and nutrients. This extra work translates into increased blood pressure; the body needs more pressure to move the blood throughout the system. High blood pressure is a common cause of heart attacks and is positively associated with incidence of vascular disease.
3. Causes diabetes: Obesity also increases one’s chance of diabetes, and diabetes usually comes hand-in-hand with vascular disease. In fact, diabetes can double and sometimes quadruple one’s risk for heart disease. This relationship is even higher in older adults: According to the American Heart Association, 68% of older adults with diabetes also have heart disease.
Ways to improve vascular health in older adults
As we mentioned above, simple modifications can improve vascular health in older adults. Dietary changes, moderate exercise and stress reduction have a powerful beneficial impact on vascular health in older adults.
A nutrient-rich diet can reduce one’s chances of developing vascular disease by balancing your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. A balanced diet also prevents fatty deposits building up in your arteries and reduces your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes.
A balanced diet includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods, like whole-grain bread, pasta and rice. Also, be sure to reduce your loved one’s intake of saturated fats, trans fats and “bad” cholesterol. Foods that include “bad” cholesterol include things like eggs, cheese and red meat. To add “good” cholesterol, encourage them to eat things like oatmeal, fish, almonds and other nuts.
Learn how to build a health diet with MyPlate, the official USDA Food Guidance System.
For older adults, experts recommend moderate-intensity aerobic activity (anything that gets the heart beating faster counts), combined with muscle-strengthening activity (any activity that makes muscles work harder than usual).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a free Activity Planner tool that allows you to set goals for your loved one, choose activities appropriate for their abilities, and get tips to help them stay motivated.
Stress also increases risk for vascular disease by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Encourage your loved one to find ways to decrease stress, including meditation, deep breathing, listening to calming music, tai chi, yoga or other practices.
Avoid other vascular disease risk factors
To further improve vascular health in older adults with obesity, work to eliminate your loved one’s alcohol and tobacco use. Alcohol increases blood pressure and triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood that can cause vascular complications. Experts recommend females restrict their alcohol intake to only one drink per day, and men to only two or less drinks per day.
And tobacco damages the heart and blood vessels. Nicotine increases blood pressure while also increasing carbon dioxide, which decreases the body’s ability to transport oxygen in the bloodstream.
Improve vascular health to improve overall health and well-being
Protecting and improving the vascular health of your loved one will not only help ensure they live a long, healthy, active life, it will also improve their well-being.
After all, a healthy heart is a happy heart.