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3 in 4 Americans have hearts ‘older’ than their age, say CDC officials

REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
"Heart age" is the age of your heart and blood vessels based on certain risk factors for heart disease — things like your blood pressure and weight and whether you smoke or have diabetes.

Three out of four U.S. adults aged 30 to 74 have a predicted “heart age” that is older than their chronological age, putting them at increased risk for heart disease and stroke, according to a study published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More than 40 percent of American adults — 69 million people in all — have a heart age that is at least five years or older than their actual age.

Heart age is the age of your heart and blood vessels based on certain risk factors for heart disease — things like your blood pressure and weight and whether you smoke or have diabetes. The concept was developed several years ago by health officials working on the long-running Framingham Heart Study as a way of helping people understand their risk of developing — and dying from — heart disease.

Of course, you want your heart age to be the same or younger than your chronological age.

Troubling news

The finding that most Americans have “older” hearts is not, perhaps, surprising, but it is troubling. For heart disease and stroke claim nearly 800,000 lives in the U.S. each year, at an annual cost of about $320 billion, according to the American Heart Association.

Fortunately, through lifestyle and other changes, most individuals can reduce their predicted heart age — if they can be motivated to take those actions.

In fact, that’s why the CDC has issued this new report. The agency’s officials hope the heart-age concept will encourage individuals “to live heart-healthy lifestyles and better comply with recommended therapeutic interventions.” They also hope that it will persuade communities “to implement programs and policies that support cardiovascular health.”

A 2015 clinical trial conducted in Europe demonstrated that the concept does help lower the risk of heart disease. In that study, which had more 3,000 participants, people who were told their predicted heart age made changes that reduced that age by an average of 1.5 years after one year. By comparison, those who were given a more traditional assessment of their heart disease risk reduced their heart age by an average of only 0.3 years.

Key findings

For the study, the CDC officials used health data collected from every state and the District of Columbia as part of the agency’s  Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. With that data, they calculated the heart age of 236,101 men and 342,424 women between the ages of 30 and 74. None of those people had heart disease or a history of a heart attack or stroke.

After making some statistical adjustments, the researchers determined that the average chronological age of the men in the study was 47.8 years, but their average heart age was 55.6 years — or 7.8 years older. The average chronological age of the women in the study was 47.9 years, while their average heart age was 53.3 years — or 5.4 years older.

As people aged, the difference between their actual age and heart age expanded, the study found. On the other hand, the gap narrowed as education level and household income increased.

Heart age was greater than chronological age for all racial and ethnic groups, but it was highest among blacks. The predicted heart age for both black men and black women at age 47 was, on average, 11 years older than their actual age.

Minnesota vs. other states

Significant geographic differences were also found. The state with the smallest average gap between actual age and heart age was Utah — 4.3 years overall (5.8 years for men and 2.8 years for women). The next five states with the healthiest hearts were Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont, California and Hawaii.

The state with the greatest average gap was Mississippi — 9.6 years overall (10.2 years for men and 9.1 years for women). The next five states with the unhealthiest hearts were also in the South: Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Minnesota scored well, at least compared with the other states. CDC officials calculated that the average difference between actual age and heart age in Minnesota was 5.4 years overall (6.9 years for men and 3.8 years for women). 

Our neighbor to the east, Wisconsin, has residents with much older hearts. The CDC gave Wisconsin an overall “mean excess heart age” score of 6.4 years (7.6 years for men and 5.2 years for women).

CDC
Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky and Alabama are the five states that have the highest percentage of adults with heart ages 5 or more years older than their actual age, while the five states with the lowest are Utah, Colorado, California, Massachusetts and Hawaii.

Prescription for a younger heart

You can learn your own heart age through an online calculating tool.  (Note: The site is getting a lot of traffic this morning, so the link may not work immediately.)

The calculator can also help you see how specific changes might improve your heart age. If you’re overweight, for example, try changing your weight in the calculator, and see its impact on your heart age.

CDC officials recommend this basic (and familiar) prescription for improving heart age:

  • If you smoke, quit. Also, avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet. The CDC recommends one low in sodium and trans fats and high in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise regularly — at least 150 minutes every week of a moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking.
  • Take steps to get your blood pressure under control. The ideal blood pressure for a healthy heart is less than 120/80.
  • Work with your doctor on a treatment plan to manage your cholesterol.
  • If you have diabetes, work with your doctor on a treatment plan to manage the disease.

The new CDC study on heart age was published in the Sept. 1 edition of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

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