How old is your heart? From a health standpoint, your ticker could be significantly younger or older than your chronological age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 40% of Americans have a heart age that’s 5 years older than their chronological age. Surprised? Even more astounding is the fact that some individuals have a heart more than a decade older than they are, placing them at a significantly higher risk for heart attack and stroke beyond what’s expected based on age.
According to results from the Framingham study, heart age varies based on gender, education, and ethnicity. In this study, men had older hearts than women and better heart health was correlated with higher levels of education. African-American males had the oldest hearts, 11 years old than their chronological age, while white women had the youngest hearts around 4.5 years older than their actual age. Of course, these are just generalizations, but these observations show your heart can age faster than you do.
Other observations: people who live in certain areas of the country have more youthful hearts on average. In this study, the youngest hearts were in the west and Southwest. For example, people in Colorado have an average heart age about 4.6 years older than their chronological age while those living in the South have the oldest hearts. Folks living in Mississippi topped the list of oldest hearts with an average heart age of 9.6 years older. Could it be the deep-fried, salty Southern food?
Heart Age: How Old is Your Heart?
By now, you’re probably anxious to know how old YOUR heart is. The World Heart Federation designed an online quiz to help you approximate the age of your heart. The purpose of the quiz is to create awareness of how lifestyle and diet impact heart age and motivate people with unhealthy lifestyles to make heart-healthy changes. Based on the results, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 75% of Americans are at high risk for heart attack and stroke. Pretty scary, huh?
The quiz asks basic questions about age, gender, and ethnic group as well as about personal medical history and family history. To get the most accurate results, you’ll need to know your approximate weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol level. Interestingly, the quiz doesn’t delve deeply into lifestyle habits, although it asks about smoking history. Still, the quiz gives you a general idea of how old your heart is based on cardiovascular risk markers like cholesterol, blood pressure, and body weight. While it doesn’t ask specifically about diet and exercise habits, you would expect a healthy lifestyle to positively impact markers they do ask about like blood pressure, cholesterol, and body weight.
Heart Age: Lifestyle Matters
Heart disease is very much a lifestyle driven disease. No doubt, genetics are a factor too. If you have a parent or sibling who had heart disease, especially before the age of 60, your risk for stroke and heart disease is higher. If you have several second-degree relatives, grandparents, aunts or uncles, with heart disease before age 60, you’re also at greater risk. Even with a family history, adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower your risk for these common causes of disability and death significantly.
How much can lifestyle impact your risk? According to researchers at the University of Indiana, adopting heart-healthy lifestyle factors can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke by up to 90%. They reached this conclusion after following close to 90,000 nurses for 20 years.
Heart Age: What lifestyle factors lower the risk?
. Keeping your body weight within a normal range
. Physical activity of at least 2.5 hours weekly
. Eating a healthy diet – a little vague
. Not smoking
. Drinking no more than one alcoholic drink a day
. Watching less than an hour a day of television
Heart Age: Exercise and Diet for Heart Disease Prevention
Although this study didn’t specify what type of exercise was best for lowering heart disease risk, recent evidence research suggests vigorous exercise may be best. According to a study published in Evidence-Based Medicine in 2014, vigorous exercise lowers risk for heart disease and improves aerobic capacity more than moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking. One of the most efficient ways to do a vigorous workout is via high-intensity interval training. Pushing hard for short periods of time and then recovering offer significant benefits to your heart and offer improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity along with the metabolic benefits exercise provides. High-intensity interval training also improves insulin sensitivity.
What’s the preferred dietary approach to reducing heart disease risk? Although the American Heart Association used to recommend a low-fat diet, their stance has shifted towards avoiding unhealthy fats like trans-fat and limiting saturated fat while reducing dietary sugar and sodium. Other recommendations include eating 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, consuming more dietary fiber, and eating a handful of nuts daily. A number of studies show nuts lower heart disease risk and overall mortality.
Based on a number of studies, the Mediterranean diet meets the criteria for a heart-healthy diet with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, legumes, and moderate amounts of whole grain foods. Fish, poultry, and plant-based protein are the preferred protein sources with the Mediterranean diet. Another diet known to lower heart disease risk called the DASH diet has much in common with the Mediterranean diet. Both diets emphasize whole foods and the avoidance of processed foods.
The Bottom Line
No one is immune to heart disease, the number one killer of men AND women in Western countries. If you’re 40 years old, your heart could be as young as 30 or as old as 50. The take-home message? Know what your heart age is and what your risk factors are for heart disease and then use lifestyle to help your heart age more gracefully.
Medline Plus. “More Evidence That Healthy Living Works Wonders for Women’s Hearts” January 5, 2015.
Evid Based Med 2013;18:159-160 doi:10.1136/eb-2012-101093.
American Heart Association. “The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations”
N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290April 4, 2013DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1200303.
Circulation. 2009 Mar 3;119(8):1093-100. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.816736. Epub 2009 Feb 16.
Medscape.com. “Heart Failure: Can the Mediterranean and DASH Diets Reduce Mortality?”
Related Articles By Cathe: