The cardiovascular system is made up by our heart, blood vessels, and blood that support our organs and tissues. Every minute, our heart pumps out about five liters of blood around our vast network of arteries, capillaries, and veins–supplying the body with oxygen.
Maintaining this complex system, and delivering a normal and healthy blood flow, is critical to our overall health and well-being. Like everything else in our bodies, the cardiovascular system goes through the aging process.
One of the hallmarks of the aging cardiovascular system, is the loss of elasticity, or flexibility of blood vessels. This flexibility is critical for the healthy function of our vessels and their blood flow.
Our arteries also harden from the build-up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances on artery walls. This plaque build-up narrows the arteries and makes it harder for blood to flow through. Our heart and its valves can also stiffen and enlarge, and restrict blood flow.
Valve problems, and abnormal heart rhythms, also raise the risk of blood clots that can lead to disabling strokes. Even the amount of blood can decrease as we age, and because red and white blood cells are also reduced, responses to infection or stress can be slower and less effective.
We do know that there are things that can positively impact cardiovascular health. Physical activity and exercise, are good for the cardiovascular system, as is a healthy diet. Eating a nutrient-dense diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and limited sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, can help maintain a healthy heart.
While we know some about how nutrition impacts cardiovascular health, we are continuing to learn more and more about how particular foods and nutrients can lead to better cardiovascular health and function.
One area of research showing some promise is the study of a group of bioactive compounds called flavanols. Flavanols are bioactives found in such foods as cocoa beans, grapes, tea, red wine, and blueberries.
Scientists in academia and industry are finding that the unique combination of flavanols found in cocoa, called cocoa flavanols, may promote a healthy heart and cardiovascular system, by supporting healthy blood flow.
They increase nitric oxide in the inner lining of the blood vessels, widening them and helping maintain blood flow. Research on the role of cocoa flavanols in health is ongoing, and supplements rich in cocoa flavanols, without all the processed extras that come with chocolate, are now available.
Scientists are now working to better understand if these compounds can play a role in prevention of heart disease. There have been many other exciting advances in our understanding of how nutrients and bioactive compounds may help maintain heart health.
Fiber and sterols may reduce the amount of cholesterol that your body absorbs from food, thereby lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol. Fiber is found naturally in fruits, grains, vegetables, legumes, other foods and supplements.
Plant sterols and stanols–also called phytosterols–are substances found in fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and supplements, and can help reduce blood LDL cholesterol. Fish oil is full of omega-3 fatty acids that may reduce the unhealthy fat in the blood and improve blood pressure.
While you can take fish oil supplements, eating fish may be the best for your cardiovascular health. Other nutrients in food may help support heart health, but research is only now beginning to help us realize their potential.
To learn more about a heart healthy diet visit the American Heart Association, WomenHeart, and the National Heart Lung & Blood Institute. And to learn more about the role of nutrition in aging, the nutrients that are critical for health, and safely turning to supplements, go to www.