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You’ve heard that advice to get up and walk around on the airplane? It’s probably time to start heeding it. Your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — a dangerous condition in which blood clots form when they’re not needed — increases exponentially with age, says cardiologist Geoffrey Barnes, M.D., a vascular medicine specialist at the University of Michigan Health’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center.
Such DVT clots, which often develop in the lower leg, can keep your blood from getting to vital organs like your heart and brain. Clots also can break off and travel through your bloodstream to your lungs, creating a blockage called a pulmonary embolism that can cause serious damage or death.
As many as 100,000 people die from blood clots each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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You’re also at higher risk if you’re obese; if you have lung disease, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease or recent or recurrent cancer; or if you are on an estrogen-based medication such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
Scientists have also found a link between COVID-19 and abnormal blood clots, possibly triggered by the high levels of inflammation caused by the disease. That association may loom long after the infection clears. A study published in the journal Circulation found that adults who had COVID-19 had a higher risk for blood clots up to a year later, prompting researchers to encourage people with cardiovascular conditions to stay on top of managing those conditions while the virus continues to spread.
How inactivity boosts risk
Blood clots are useful, of course, to stop bleeding after something like an injury. While they can happen otherwise at any time, they are a particular concern when you’re sedentary or immobile for an extended period.
“We rely on the muscles of the leg to help push blood from the leg back to the heart to start that loop again,” Barnes says. When you’re not walking, “your legs aren’t pumping blood as effectively.”
Experts say you should be especially alert for clot symptoms at these times:
- After having surgery, particularly if it involved your abdomen, pelvis, hip or legs. About one-half of blood clots occur during or soon after a hospital stay or surgery, according to the CDC.
- If you have experienced recent trauma (such as a fall or car crash) or a broken bone
- When you are bedridden for any reason
- During or shortly after a prolonged car or plane ride