The health of your heart is impacted by a number of different factors, from smoking to diabetes, meaning that depending on lifestyle choices, people’s hearts age at different rates. A new study has found out, however, that its aging rate also depends on your sex.
By following close to 3,000 patients over a period of 10 years, the researchers were able to track how patients' hearts changed during this period using MRI scans. This tracking over time was important, because previous studies looking into the differences in aging of hearts had simply compared those of young and old people at a single point in time, which couldn’t therefore account for differences in lifestyles or medical history. Checking up on the same individuals periodically, they found that there were surprising differences between the aging of hearts in both men and women.
“The shape of the heart changes over time in both men and women, but the patterns of change are different,” explained Dr John Eng in a statement. Eng, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, coauthored the study, which is published in the journal Radiology. “Men's hearts tend to get heavier and the amount of blood they hold is less, while women's hearts don't get heavier.”
As people get older, the left heart chamber, or ventricle, responsible for pumping the oxygenated blood around the body gets smaller. This is usually due to increased blood pressure, which means that the heart muscle has to work harder to pump the blood around the body, increasing its mass and thus shrinking the size of the chamber. But it turns out that while the volume of the left ventricle does decrease in both men and women over time, the causes are different.
The mass of the left ventricle in men did increase, causing the corresponding decrease in volume, but surprisingly they found that the mass of the left ventricle in women either stayed the same or actually decreased. Instead, they think that the decrease in volume seen in women’s hearts as they age may be down to a change in shape. Why these differences between the sexes occur is, according to the researchers, a little less easy to understand and remains unknown.
“Our results are a striking demonstration of the concept that heart disease may have different pathophysiology in men and women and of the need for tailored treatments that address such important biologic differences,” said João Lima, another of the authors of the paper, in a statement. This study could add another string to the bow of personalized medicine, in which people are treated to a far more individualized degree, rather than being given generic treatments.
Still, the best way to protect your heart from any future health problems is the advice we’ve all heard a thousand times before. If you don’t smoke, don’t start, and if you do then stop. Maintain a healthy weight and body mass index through eating a healthy diet and getting more exercise. And finally, if you do have diabetes or high cholesterol, talk to your doctor and make sure it’s managed correctly.