You may feel young at heart, but chances are your actual heart is much “older” than your real age, according to new research.
In a report published today, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 3 out of 4 adults in the United States have a predicted “heart age” older than their chronological age, putting them at an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. One’s heart age is determined by taking into account actual age, body mass index, and a number of risk factors for heart attack and stroke, including high blood pressure, cigarette smoking and diabetes status.
Using data collected from all 50 states and information from the large, ongoing Framingham Heart Study, the CDC researchers determined that nearly 69 million U.S. adults between the ages of 30 and 74 have a heart age older than their actual age.
“Too many U.S. adults have a heart age years older than their real age, increasing their risk of heart disease and stroke,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. “Everybody deserves to be young – or at least not old – at heart.”
The results of the study showed that half of men and 2 in 5 women have a heart age that’s five or more years older than their chronological age. The average cardiovascular age for adult men was eight years older than their actual age, while it was five years older for women.
While an older heart age was seen across all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., it was highest among African Americans. This is consistent with previous research, which shows that African Americans are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease and related morbidity and mortality.
The researchers also found geographic differences. The highest heart ages were typically in the South, with Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Alabama having the highest percentages of adults with a cardiovascular age of 5 years or more over their actual age. This is not surprising, given that the South has the country’s highest rates of obesity and cigarette smoking — two of the major risk factors for poor heart health. Conversely, Utah, Colorado, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have the lowest percentages, as this CDC map shows:.
About 610,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, accounting for one in every four deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. It’s the number one killer of both men and women nationwide, and at least half of heart disease-related deaths can be traced back to just five risk factors: elevated cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and smoking. What’s more, the majority of preventable heart disease deaths occur in people under age 65.
While doctors have long been able to use basic measures like blood pressure and cholesterol to estimate a patient’s risk of having a heart attack in the next decade, the study authors say that heart age could be an easier concept for the average person to understand. And some research shows that patients are more willing to make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, if doctors use heart age – rather than other measures – to convey their risk.
“Because so many U.S. adults don’t understand their cardiovascular disease risk, they are missing out on early opportunities to prevent future heart attacks or strokes,” said Barbara A. Bowman, Ph.D., director of CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. “About three in four heart attacks and strokes are due to risk factors that increase heart age, so it’s important to continue focusing on efforts to improve heart health and increase access to early and affordable detection and treatment resources nationwide.”
The researchers recommend that individuals work with their doctors to adopt healthier habits and start by choosing one or two risk factors — like smoking or high blood pressure — to work on improving first.
The report also calls on states and health care providers to do their part by providing resources to help people reduce their risk factors for heart disease and stroke; encouraging walking in safe areas (and ensuring that streets have adequate lighting); improving access to healthy food in communities (eliminating ‘food deserts’, bringing farmer’s markets to urban areas, etc.); promoting equity and addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities in cardiovascular health and health care; and establishing more smoking quit lines and tobacco-free areas and public spaces.