Last Updated: July 26, 2019
Although heart disease remains the leading cause of death of men and women in the United States, the number of seniors afflicted with the condition decreased markedly during the last decade. Evidence suggests assisted living communities and long-term care providers may have helped bring about this change.
Learn more about how senior living has impacted heart disease in seniors.
Each year, heart disease takes more than half a million American lives, making it the leading cause of death in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The good news is that fewer seniors are dying from the disease today. The CDC reports that the rate of seniors hospitalized because of heart disease has decreased by almost 50% in the last decade, which indicates that nationwide education and prevention efforts are paying dividends. During the same period, the number of seniors at assisted living communities has grown dramatically, more than doubling, according to an AARP report.
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There appears to be a correlation between the increasing use of assisted living communities and seniors’ improved heart health, which is not surprising, as senior living providers understand their role in seniors’ lives and take the responsibility seriously. Assisted living communities often provide their residents with regular fitness opportunities and healthy meals, even controlling smoking policies, to improve heart health.
Senior living communities’ encouragement, structure and support can help seniors adhere to guidelines for heart-healthy living that they might not have been able to adhere to independently, like:
Chris Tolstoy, the former food and beverages manager for the senior living provider LeisureCare, explains that assisted living communities coordinate meal planning with exercise, which is an important component of a heart-healthy lifestyle. “With input from the on-staff personal trainers, we can help a resident pair a fitness program together with their meal program,” he says.
The amount of exercise one gets is directly correlated to their probability of developing heart disease. The American Heart Association says, “There is a direct relation between inactivity and cardiovascular mortality…”
A core goal of assisted living communities is to help keep their residents active. They provide both the encouragement and facilities that seniors require to keep fit and exercise programs often range from dancing and Tai Chi to water aerobics. Jason Childers, the former senior vice president of LeisureCare, says an enthusiastic staff is also essential, “We are seeing more and more residents taking advantage of the gym. When the trainer is enthusiastic, it’s easy to get people excited about it.”
A proper diet is vital to a healthy heart and as assisted living communities provide just about all the food that seniors eat, they must be mindful to make dining both delicious and healthy for their residents. As Tolstoy notes, “When you choose your community, you are basically choosing the restaurant that you will go to two to three times a day, every day.” Tolstoy goes on to explain that heart health is taken very seriously at LeisureCare and is a key consideration in their nutrition program. “We offer a minimum of five heart-healthy items, which are designated on the menu with a little heart.”
We also spoke with Geoff Davies, vice president of culinary services for the senior living company, Merrill Gardens. He outlines the measures that they take to ensure seniors are offered a menu that’s both appetizing and healthy, saying:
“We make our own menus with input from the community chefs” and then send them to a “team of registered dieticians who review and validate nutrition.” Merrill Gardens has also put in place company-wide nutrition protocols, such as a no added salt policy, that promote cardiovascular health.
Smoking is another cause of heart disease according to the American Heart Association, which explains, “Smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the U.S. Smokers have a higher risk of developing many chronic disorders, including atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty substances in the arteries — which can lead to coronary heart disease.”
Fortunately, today’s assisted living communities are, as a rule, smoke-free. Smoking is usually relegated to a designated outdoor area which assures that residents and staff who do not smoke aren’t exposed to hazardous, smoke-filled air. Communities’ nonsmoking policies not only protect nonsmokers but also can help encourage current smokers to give up the habit.
The inconvenience of only being allowed to smoke in designated areas often serves as motivation to break the habit and residents who are actively trying to quit smoking can also receive additional support from medical professionals at the community.
What have you, your parents or senior loved ones done to prevent heart disease? We’d like to hear your stories and any tips you may have in the comments below.