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Overview of the Cardiovascular System

Blood flowing through arteries.(Photo: Christian Jasiuk/iStock/Getty Images)

Blood flows through the cardiovascular system in a process called circulation. In less than a minute, the cardiovascular system is able to pump blood to every cell of the body. The heart fills with blood before each beat. With each beat, this blood is pumped into the arteries to be sent throughout the body. Blood that is pumped from the heart flows through the arteries. The body contains 20 arteries, which connect to smaller blood vessels called arterioles. This blood provides the oxygen and other nutrients essential to the health of the tissues and cells. Blood that flows back to the heart does so through veins. This blood is carrying waste gases such as carbon dioxide from the tissues to the heart, which sends it to the lungs, where it is renewed with oxygen before making its way back to the heart and then back into the body.

Three Functions of the Cardiovascular System

3D rendering of white blood cell which the cardiovascular system uses to protect the body.(Photo: Sebastian Kaulitzki/iStock/Getty Images)

The three main functions of the cardiovascular system are transport, protection and regulation. The cardiovascular system transports nutrients, oxygen and hormones to the cells of the body. At the same time, it removes the wastes produced by bodily functions. These include gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen as well as heat that is emitted by the functions of the body.

The cardiovascular system protects the body by supplying it with white blood cells. These cells fight infection and disease. It also supplies the body with antibodies and proteins that destroy foreign viruses and bacterium which could cause harm to it. Finally, the cardiovascular system protects the body by coagulating the blood when it is injured. This means that the blood is able to clot and seal wounds to the tissue. Lastly, the cardiovascular system acts as a regulating agent in the body. It maintains a stable body temperature, balances the pH level of the blood and provides water to the cells and tissues of the body.

The Effects of Aging on the Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system is the heart and the blood vessels that pump blood throughout the body. This system carries oxygen and nutrients to the cells of the body and carries away waste products. Changes occur in both the blood vessels and the heart itself as the body ages. These changes force the heart to work harder and to be less efficient.

Figure 1.

Age-dependent changes to cardiovascular tissues. Both the heart and vasculature undergo numerous

alterations during aging as a result of deregulation of molecular longevity pathways, leading to compromised function

The Heart

As age increases, the heart cannot respond to an increased workload as quickly as it once did. This decrease in response occurs because the heart muscle loses elasticity and becomes stiffer and more rigid. The heart cells have a lowered ability to use oxygen. This can cause dizziness and loss of balance. Most often this is noticed when there is sudden movement, a quick change of position or exertion.

The Blood Vessels

As the body ages, the arteries lose some of their elasticity and become less pliable and smaller. This causes the heart to work harder to push the blood through the arteries to the body, resulting in decreased blood flow to the organs such as the brain, as well as an increase in blood pressure. Veins also suffer some changes that weaken the walls and valves of the vessels, making older people more prone to varicose veins. The smooth inner lining of all blood vessels becomes a bit rough as the body ages, leaving a body more prone to blood clots or thromboses.

The Blood

The composition of the blood itself changes as a person ages. There is a reduction in the volume of red blood cells. There is also a more likely chance of a blood clot because the blood is able to pool in some areas due to structural weaknesses of the blood vessels.


It is still not clear of all these changes are strictly due to aging or if they are also caused by a longer exposure to things such as poor dietary choices, cigarettes, lack of exercise, and environmental pollutants. Older people who are in better shape tend to have more efficient cardiovascular systems.


While it is impossible to prevent aging, it is possible to increase your cardiovascular health. This can be accomplished by maintaining a healthy weight, following a nutritious diet, and exercising regularly. Making smart lifestyle choices is important throughout a lifetime to help ensure cardiovascular health as a person ages. There are many older, fit people who have better cardiovascular health than younger people who have made poor lifestyle choices.

Aging Process & the Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system undergoes age-related changes as an individual advances in age. The parts that make up the cardiovascular system--the heart, lungs, and blood vessels--all decline in function over time


The heart muscle becomes weaker and less efficient with age, gradually losing much of its pumping ability and efficiency, which negatively affects blood circulation and oxygen transport throughout the entire body.


Advancing age results in a decrease in lung capacity and elasticity, making it harder to perform strenuous and/or long duration exercise. Age-related changes in the air sacs, or alveoli, of the lungs impede oxygen transport from the lungs to the blood stream, further eroding stamina and endurance.

Blood Vessels

The aging process results in a reduction in blood vessel flexibility, which promotes the development of high blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.


Blood tends to become thicker and less fluid with age, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. The blood also becomes less efficient at absorbing and transporting oxygen, which reduces exercise capacity.


Aging increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which is a common disorder of the blood vessels that results in a gradual thickening and narrowing of the blood vessel walls. The coronary arteries of the heart are especially susceptible to the effects of atherosclerosis.

How to Keep the Cardiovascular System Healthy

The cardiovascular system is quite possibly the most important system in the body. Not taking anything away from the other systems, but if your blood's not flowing, then you are not living. That is why it is of paramount interest to keep the cardiovascular system healthy and kicking. This can be done by following a well-balanced game plan that involves some lifestyle changes, some

dietary adjustments and a little bit of exercise thrown in for good measure.


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Avoid bad foods. Eliminate deep fried foods, processed foods, refined foods and foods that are high in saturated fat. These can all elevate cholesterol levels which can in turn lead to heart disease.

Eat the right foods. Eat foods that are nutrient dense, low in fat and high in fiber. Some of these foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes.

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Avoid smoking. Smoking deprives the body of valuable oxygen. It is also a stimulant and it causes blood pressure to rise.

Get some exercise. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. This doesn't have to be at a really high intensity and it can also be broken up into increments. It can be something as simple as three, 10-minute walks throughout the course of the day.

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Cut down on the stress. Being stressed out all the time can cause an elevated heart rate. Take time to relax and do things that are enjoyable. Some examples would be attending yoga or meditative classes, or going for long, peaceful walks.

Eat good fats. The good fats in this case are Omega-3 fatty acids. According to the Mayo Clinic, Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent heart attacks and irregular heartbeats. Some sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include cold water fish, flax seeds and walnuts.

AGING The process of aging is a continuum progressing throughout the individual's life. Unlike pathologic conditions, the aging process affects all individuals. It is a process that is genetically programmed but modified by environmental influences, so the rate of aging can vary widely among people. Therefore, physiologic aging in any given individual may occur more rapidly or more slowly than the chronologic age, giving rise to people who are "old" at age 60 and others who are "young" at age 75. The status of physical conditioning of the individual can radically affect the measurements of

cardiovascular function in the elderly and changes in physical activity can profoundly change cardiovascular function EFFECTS With aging there are changes in the cardiovascular system, which result in alterations in cardiovascular physiology. The changes in cardiovascular physiology must be differentiated from the effects of pathology, such as coronary artery disease, that occur with increasing frequency as age increases. The changes with age occur in everyone but not necessarily at the same rate, therefore accounting for the difference seen in some people between chronologic age and physiologic age. The changes in the cardiovascular system associated with aging are a decrease in elasticity and an increase in stiffness of the arterial system. This results in increased afterload on the left ventricle, an increase in systolic blood pressure, and left ventricular hypertrophy, as well as other changes in the left ventricular wall that prolong relaxation of the left ventricle in diastole. There is a dropout of atrial pacemaker cells resulting in a decrease in intrinsic heart rate. With fibrosis of the cardiac skeleton there is calcification at the base of the aortic valve and damage to the His bundle as it perforates the right fibrous trigone. Finally there is decreased responsiveness to adrenergic receptor stimulation, a decreased reactivity to baroreceptors and chemoreceptors, and an increase in circulating catecholamines. These changes set the stage for isolated systolic hypertension, diastolic dysfunction and heart failure, atrioventricular conduction defects, and aortic valve calcification, all diseases seen in the elderly.