Heart Maintenance in your 80s

A quarter of seniors over 80 have undiagnosed heart problems

by Monica Wilde.
26 July 2012

Today a research paper was published, commissioned by the British Heart Foundation with Newcastle University, reporting on a survey of heart health in 87 to 89 year old people4 

The researchers discovered that in the 300 people tested, a quarter had undiagnosed heart problems. These, a BBC report suggested, could be treated with heart drugs such as beta blockers and ACE inhibitors but it also warned that "prescribing them would have to be done carefully, as the side effects could sometimes outweigh the benefits."

This struck a chord as many people who turn to herbal medicine do so because they find that the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs are intolerable. In some cases they can dramatically lower the quality of life for elderly people. Beta blockers for example can cause insomnia and central nervous system and/or psychological side effects.

ACE inhibitors can cause dizziness with 10% developing a persistent dry cough. Less common side-effects include angio-oedema (swelling of the lips, eyes or tongue) and a decline in kidney function. 

Unfortunately, it is well known that many side effects are unreported. All too often elderly people are told that "a few aches and pains are to be expected at your age". They don't like to complain and struggle on in silence, slowly deteriorating. 

This is particularly exacerbated when an older person ends up on a cocktail of drugs, known as polypharmacy. This can happen if a patient is taking one thing for their heart, another for their arthritis, and perhaps something to lower cholesterol, and they occasionally adding an aspirin or paracetamol for pain relief. 

Although pharmaceutical drugs are tested on patients in clinical trials before they are put on the market, they are not tested in combination with drugs for different conditions made by different manufacturers. So the effects of taking multiple drugs simultaneously only comes to light later on and if patients do not report suspected side effects then it is never recorded.

Herbs and supplements in preventative care

Although there are fewer published studies on the benefits of herbal medicines, there are many herbs which are well researched and can help elderly people to maintain their health in advancing years. Herbs that are easier to digest and gentler on their systems, especially when taken over a long time, and taken properly rarely have side effects. After all, we have evolved on a diet of plants and our digestive systems are well suited to them.

Taking food supplements and herbal teas as a preventative, alongside a simple but nutritious diet and regular exercise (such as walking, pilates, yoga or tai chi), can really improve the quality of your health and life as you age. 

Hawthorn the heart tonic

Hawthorn berry (Crategeus spp.) is one such supplement, taken to strengthen and protect the heart as we age. Traditionally, country people would take hawthorn tea, hawthorn gin or hawthorn brandy daily "for the heart". Our arteries stiffen as we age, restricting blood flow. Hawthorn, which contains compounds called flavonoids, helps to keep the blood vessels dilated (vasodilation) and also strengthens the heart. 

In herbal medicine, extracts of hawthorn have been used since at least the 1800s to treat high blood pressure, angina, arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure.

As a medicine at therapeutic doses, hawthorn leaf and flower extracts have been approved by the German Commission E for use by patients suffering from heart failure stage II according to the New York Heart Association grading scale. It's effectiveness in treating cardiac insufficiency has been documented in many evidence based clinical trials which can be found at PubMed, for example the meta analysis of clinical trials by Guo, Pittler and Ernst (2008)1.

Hawthorn safety

Hawthorn is rarely associated with side effects although these can happen at high doses. There are also no known drug interactions. In fact, to the contrary, if a beta blocker is required, taking hawthorn (which improves vasodilation) means that the dose of the chemical drug prescribed will be effective at much lower doses. So in some cases it is beneficial to take hawthorn with your other drugs. Of course, if you have been diagnosed with a heart condition, it is really important that arriving at the correct dose of both drug and hawthorn should only be done under medical supervision with your doctor or medical herbalist.

Other herbs and supplements

Other herbs and supplements that improve or 'tone' the cardiovascular system include ginkgo and horse chestnut. Lime flowers, like hawthorn, help to lower high blood pressure and there are herbs and supplements that help to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels, relieve the inflammation and pain of arthritis, improve the appetite and digestion, and keep your memory alert. Many herbs and plants can also be added to food so an endless queue of pills can be avoided.

So as you or your loved ones get older, it is definitely worth investigating herbal medicine and nutrition to improve the quality of your health in the later years. 


1. Guo R, Pittler MH, Ernst E. Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD005312. DOI: 10.1002/14651858. CD005312.pub2. PDF

2. Tassell M, Kingston R, Gilroy D, Lehane M and Furey A. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jan-Jun; 4(7): 32–41. doi:  10.4103/0973-7847.65324 PMCID: PMC3249900 PDF

3. Triggle, N. Very old missing out on basic heart care. BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18968695 Accessed: 25 July 2012 Last updated at 08:26

4. Yousaf F, Collerton J, Kingston A, et al. Prevalence of left ventricular dysfunction in a UK community sample of very old people: the Newcastle 85+ study. Heart Journal 2012. doi:10.1136/heartjnl-2012-302457 PDF