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How to Improve Leg Circulation in Elderly

With age, a person’s body experiences many changes.   Among those changes, alterations in circulation are common.  Understanding the causes for changes in circulation and ways to improve it is important to promote good health.

Circulation of blood through the body is a natural part of ongoing health. It is an involuntary, or natural action, within the body. However, because the structures of the heart become more rigid with age, circulation can become impaired.

This may result in the heart being forced to work harder to get adequate blood pumped throughout the body. Because circulation in the legs and feet involves the task of pushing blood back upward toward the heart, it is particularly affected with age.

Risk Factors of Poor Circulation in the Elderly

In addition to natural, age-related changes, there are other risk factors that may affect circulation in the elderly.  Disease processes such as diabetes or peripheral artery disease may be contributing factors. 

Additionally, personal choices, such as smoking or having a sedentary lifestyle may lead to poor circulation.   

Other factors that may cause the heart to work harder include:

  • Emotional stress
  • Certain Medications
  • Physical exertion
  • Illness
  • Injuries

Symptoms of Poor Leg Circulation

There are several symptoms that may be an indication of poor circulation. If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, schedule a visit with your primary care provider for an evaluation. 

While there are measures that can be done at home to promote good circulation (discussed later in this article), it is important to make sure your physician is aware of symptoms.  

Some symptoms of poor circulation can affect a person’s quality of life.  Common symptoms include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the legs and feet: The most common symptoms of poor circulation are numbness and tingling in the legs and feet. When blood flow is restricted due to poor circulation, sufficient blood cannot reach the legs and feet in adequate quantities.  The individual may experience a sensation of “pins and needles.”
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs: Poor circulation can cause fluid to accumulate in certain areas of the body, especially the lower extremities. This accumulation of fluid is known as edema. It can occur when the heart is unable to circulate an adequate supply of blood throughout the body. Symptoms of edema may include heaviness or swelling in the legs or feet, tight-fitting clothing, pain in the affected areas and stiff joints.  
  • Fatigue: Poor blood flow affects energy levels and can cause fatigue. Because the heart must pump harder when circulation is poor, it can worsen fatigue.  
  • Joint and muscle cramping: Cells need oxygen to function normally. Without it, pain and cramping may occur. The feet may also feel cold and ache or throb.  Calf muscle pain is very common when poor circulation is present.  
  • Ulcers in the legs or feet:  Poor circulation affects the body’s ability to heal, which can lead to ulcers in the legs and feet, known as stasis ulcers.

The best treatment for poor circulation depends on the cause, and problems in the arteries or veins are often responsible.

Ways to Improve Leg Circulation

Fortunately, there are some measures that may help improve leg circulation.  For example:

  • Stop smoking cigarettes.  Smoking causes constriction of the blood vessels and may result in impaired circulation.  Stopping smoking may help prevent further damage to arteries.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise has been shown to improve the capacity of blood vessels to dilate, which helps them work more efficiently in the promotion of healthy blood circulation. 
  • Avoid long periods of immobility. Immobility, especially for long periods of time, can cause pooling of blood and may lead to the development of clots. The presence of clots makes it difficult for blood to flow freely through vessels. Also, clots that become dislodged can result in a stroke or heart attack.
  • Elevate your legs. Sitting in a recliner with the legs elevated helps promote circulation because not as much force is needed to move blood from the legs to the upper body. 
  • Wear support hosiery or socks to improve circulation. Compression socks/support hosiery are specially designed to apply pressure to the lower legs, helping to maintain blood flow and reduce discomfort and swelling.

Nutrition and Circulatory Health

The foods we eat impact health on every level, including circulation.  There are some foods that seem to be the “superfood” of blood flow, while others leave arteries congested, much like a traffic jam. 

Making healthy food choices can help promote healthy blood flow.

Good Food Choices:

  • Fish: Salmon, cod and other cold-water fish are rich in omega-3 fats.  This type of fat is the healthiest for the circulatory system. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and it has the effect of “thinning” blood so that it can flow more easily.
  • Vitamin C:  Foods such as oranges, lemons, strawberries, broccoli and bell peppers are great sources of Vitamin C.  It benefits the circulatory system, especially the tiny capillaries that carry blood from arteries directly to the cells.  
  • Beets: Beets help improve circulation because they’re rich in nitrate, which converts to nitric oxide in the body.  Nitric oxide helps arteries dilate, thus improving circulation.
  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate contains a nutrient called flavonoids. Flavonoids are antioxidants, which help prevent inflammation.

Added sugars, salt and fats should be avoided or, at least, restricted in the diet, as excessive use of each can cause strain on the circulatory system.

Conclusion

While it may not possible to guarantee preventive measures will eliminate the risk of circulation issues in the elderly, they can certainly help reduce the risk.  In addition to making healthy diet and lifestyle choices, having regular medical check-ups is important.  

Age-related changes are expected.  However, the extent of those changes and their effect on the aging body can be altered somewhat with proper intervention. 

Elderly people should have an annual exam with a primary care provider and should make additional visits if any symptoms, such as those mentioned in this article, occur.  

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