Aging of the Heart: Men Vs. Women

A recent study published in Radiology suggests that gender differences affect how the heart ages. The researchers used advanced MRI techniques to image the heart more accurately than standard methods like echocardiograms. They performed MRI measurements on roughly 3,000 participants for 10 years, and found that the thickness of the walls of the left ventricle increased in men and decreased in women. The left ventricle is the last of the four heart chambers, and is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body. The study authors did not provide a possible reason for the differences between men and women—however, they did note that because this difference exists, future research should examine treatments for heart disease that target men or women specifically.

What We Do Know That Causes Thickening
Thickening of the left ventricle is mostly caused by factors that require the heart to pump against a greater pressure. For example, as we age, our large elastic arteries begin to stiffen. When the heart is forced to pump blood into stiffer arteries, it requires greater pressure—leading to ventricle thickening. Many lifestyle factors, such as poor diet and a lack of exercise, can make this arterial stiffening worse. But the story isn’t that simple: Even healthy behaviors like resistance exercise (strength training) have been shown to increase left ventricular wall thickness. And, oddly enough, it has been shown that older women have higher blood pressure than men, which would contradict the results of the Radiology study.

What Does This Mean?
Clearly, more research is needed, but what does this recent study mean for your health? Well, research shows that over the long term, left ventricle thickening can lead to interruption of blood supply to the heart, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm, sudden cardiac arrest, and stroke. No one knows for sure, but perhaps these reasons can explain why, in general, women tend to live longer men by almost 5 years. All the more reason to eat right and exercise, guys.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.