Why does age affect my risk of heart disease?
Your risk of heart disease increases about 3-fold with each advancing decade.1 Older age is considered a risk factor for heart disease after age 55 for women and after age 45 for men.2 This is partly because many women younger than 55 have not yet gone through menopause and still have high levels of the female hormone estrogen in their blood. Estrogen produced by the body is thought to help protect the heart.3, 4 After menopause, however, the levels of estrogen in a woman’s body drop significantly. On average, women develop heart disease about 10 to 15 years later than men.
Another reason that heart disease risk rises with age is because the buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries is a lifelong process. As you get older, blockages in the arteries get larger and may cause problems.5 These blockages can reduce the amount of blood and oxygen that reaches the heart, causing chest pain or heart attack.
How common is heart disease in older women?
More than 70 million Americans (37.6 million are women) have cardiovascular disease; almost 40% of these people are age 65 or older.2 On average, women have their first heart attack at age 70, while men have their first heart attack at age 66.6 For women who live to age 70 without heart disease, their remaining lifetime risk is 25%, while for men it is more than 30%.7,8
Will age affect my chances of surviving a heart attack?
Yes. More than 83% of people who die from heart disease are older than 65 years.6 In part because they develop heart disease at an older age than men, women are more likely than men to die within a few weeks of having a heart attack.6
No. However, there is evidence that doctors may undertreat older patients anyway.9 This may be due to the mistaken belief that heart disease treatments are less effective in elderly people who often have other medical conditions as well as heart disease.10 In reality, the elderly benefit as much as younger heart disease patients from medical and surgical treatment to reduce the risk of dying or having a heart attack.11, 12 It is also just as important for elderly people to reduce their risk factors, such as smoking and high blood pressure, as it is for younger people.
Treating high blood pressure with medication is particularly beneficial for patients 60 to 80 years of age. With these medications, older patients can reduce their blood pressure just as much as younger patients.13
Managing cholesterol may be even more beneficial for elderly men and women than for younger patients. In one study of people with high cholesterol, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs didn’t significantly cut heart attack rates for those under 65 years of age, but they did cut the rate by 39% in those 65 years of age and older. Statins also reduced the risk of dying from a heart attack by 45% in men and women 65 years of age and older.14
Older patients also do well with treatments to unblock clogged arteries including balloon angioplasty, stents, and heart bypass surgery. In fact, these treatments improve quality of life and decrease the severity of chest pain for the elderly more effectively than less invasive procedures.15