Is Your Heart Older than Your Body?

Even if your heart’s in the right place, it might be older than your body. At least in terms of a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The average man in the U.S. has a heart that’s 7.8 years “older” than his chronological age; the average woman’s “heart age” is 5.4 years older than her date of birth. Heart age, as defined by the CDC, is the predicted age of someone’s vascular system based on his or her cardiovascular risk factor profile. The higher the heart age, the higher the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

The comparison of organ health to body chronology is gimmicky, but it’s used by public health experts, the Los Angeles Times explained, who are involved with the long-standing Framingham Heart Study as a teaching tool. The idea is to help people understand their risk of having a heart attack,  stroke, chest pain, peripheral artery disease or another heart-related condition, including death.

In Europe, this approach seemed to work. One clinical trial in which people who were told their heart age found that they improved their heart health more than the people in the trial who were told only of their absolute risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The ones who learned their heart age lowered it by 1.5 years over the course of a year, compared with only 0.3 years lower for the ones told only of the traditional risk information.

Public health officials are keen to raise heart-health consciousness because nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. die of heart-related conditions each year, at a cumulative cost of about $320 billion annually, according to the American Heart Assn.

CDC researchers set out to estimate the heart age of U.S. adults to see how their ages differed according to where the subjects lived, how much education and money they had and their racial and ethnic profiles.

They used data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which compiles information about cardiovascular disease every other year from individuals. Participants in the survey report their age, smoking status, body mass index and whether they have diabetes or take medication to control blood pressure. The heart age calculator data also include systolic blood pressure, which is the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (it’s the top number in a blood pressure reading).

Heart ages were calculated for 236,101 men and 342,424 women between the ages of 30 and 74. None had heart disease or had suffered a heart attack or stroke.

After factoring in the age distribution of the U.S. population, the researchers calculated that the average chronological age of the participating men was 47.8 years, but their average heart age was 55.6 years. The women’s average chronological age was 47.9 years, and their average heart age was 53.3 years.

So, nearly half of the men and nearly 4 in 10 women (about 69.1 million people total) had a heart age at least 5 years older than their calendar age, according to the CDC report.

The older the person, the wider the gap between their chronological and heart ages. But as with many such studies, affluence seems to aid health — the heart-age gap was smaller the greater the educational achievement and household income.

Geographically, Utah notched the smallest gap — men’s hearts averaged 5.8 excess years and women’s were 2.8 years older. Mississippi reported the largest gap — 10.1 years for men, 9.1 for women.

Ethnically, African Americans had the highest heart ages (58.7 years for men, 58.9 for women), followed by Latinos (55.7 years/men, 53.3/women), whites (55.3/52.5) and people of other racial and ethnic groups (54.7/52.3).

You can’t roll back the years literally, but you can make your heart younger. The researchers reported that a 50-year-old man who smokes, has high blood pressure and borders between being overweight and obese would have a heart age of 72. But, if he quits smoking and takes medication to lower his blood pressure, he could shave 19 years off his heart age, to 53. A woman with a similar profile could reduce her heart age from 74 to 51.

Calculate your own heart’s age with the online CDC calculator here. If you don’t like the result, there’s also a chart showing how to bring your body and heart age closer to the same number.

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