Health & Wellness

Exercise can improve health in older patients with heart disease

Older people dealing with heart disease have often been told to take it easy, but the best way to get better may be to get moving.

Physical activity helps reduce symptoms and allows these patients to keep performing everyday tasks, like carrying groceries or climbing stairs, and stay independent, noted an American Heart Association scientific statement published in Circulation on Thursday.

It’s a real issue as people live longer and become more vulnerable to heart disease in old age. In an older person, it affects not only the heart, but many other systems in the body, said Dr. Daniel Forman, the lead researcher and chair of geriatric cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Doctors must take into account frailty — the notion of weakening and slowing down — in older patients. Plus, most older people are on so many medicines that it can compound the problem.

“If you treat heart disease with standard therapies, they can sometimes have worse effects than you expect because someone is older,” Forman told TODAY.

“You give someone a beta blocker, which is a great drug… but for many older adults, it slows them down even more.” It’s a similar story with statins, he added.

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Exercise isn’t more important than medicines, but it’s another dimension of care that, in some cases, can become the biggest factor in a good outcome, Forman said.

Don't just focus on aerobic function, which is just one part of a bigger picture that should also include a focus on balance, strength and cognition — all of which decline with age, the statement notes.

When it comes to choosing the best exercise, walking is always a good choice, or you can go dancing or swimming if that’s your passion, Forman said.

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Incorporating balance and strength training into the routine can become harder, and that’s why cardiac rehab is a good consideration for most people because it can offer guidance, he added. “[But] many people don’t go to cardiac rehab because their doctors and nurses say, ‘Just take it easy,’” Forman noted.

Tai chi may be particularly good for older adults because it integrates strength, aerobic, and balance components, the statement notes. Yoga has similar advantages.

Remember: “The way to get better is not necessarily just to sit there,” ” Forman said. “The most important thing is doing something.”

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