Learning “Heart Age” Keeps Us Healthier

Date: 02/18/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

Learning “Heart Age” Keeps Us Healthier

When we go to the doctor for a checkup, we typically get lots of numbers thrown at us for our cholesterol levels, blood sugar, body-mass index, cardiovascular disease risk score, and the like.  But most of us don't pay much attention to the specifics of these numbers. After all, we don't really know what they mean.  Instead, we rely on the physician to tell us what needs to be raised or lowered to get healthy and what drugs we need to take to do that.  So we typically leave the office with a vague notion of what is a little "off" in the body with no concrete plan about how to fix it.  But now, researchers have tested a "Heart Age" calculator that presents the same likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) as a percentage risk does, but in a way that patients can more realistically relate to--an estimated age of your heart.

The study, which took place at the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma, Spain, found that when provided with a heart age rather than a percentage likelihood of developing CVD within a decade, people gain a greater understanding of their risk of heart health problems and are more motivated to make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve them.1  Although CVD is a very common condition and the number one cause of death in both the Unites States and the world as a whole, it appears that many patients do not fully grasp the gravity of its potential danger when it's presented as a percentage risk score--perhaps because they think they'll beat the odds, just like they believe they'll win lotto. As a result, they tend to take little action to increase heart health.

The subjects were 3,153 adults who all were provided with a thorough health assessment.  They were randomly divided into three groups. The first group was offered a traditional percentage risk for developing CVD.  The second group was given the exact same information but in Heart Age form, suggesting the age at which the patient's heart truly functions at rather than their chronological age.  The third group served as a control, receiving no data on their hearts but instead only guidelines for a generally healthy lifestyle.  One year later, all of the participants had a follow-up medical exam during which heart health was checked again.

The volunteers who were in both of the groups given information about their CVD risks had a much greater drop in risk scores compared to their peers populating the control group.  But the people provided with a Heart Age showed more significant improvements than those given the percentage risk, and they had been influenced by no additional interventions.  What's more, those in the Heart Age group reported adopting a greater number of positive lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation.  The Heart Age subjects were found to quit smoking at a rate four times that of their counterparts in the risk scores group, and that is significant since smoking is considered one of the major risk factors for developing CVD within our control.

Often when a person is showing signs of damage from heart disease or at high risk, a doctor may prescribe statins to lower LDL cholesterol levels or high blood pressure medications such as beta blockers or ACE inhibitors.  Improving diet, engaging in exercise, and making other lifestyle changes will most likely be encouraged, but many physicians focus on the pharmaceutical solution.  However, this option comes with the chance of wide ranging side effects that can include depression, erectile dysfunction, insomnia, coughing, skin rash, memory loss, diabetes, and muscle pain that can be so awful when taking statins that patients discontinue their use.2

Therefore, a study such as the present one is interesting in that merely mentioning the Heart Age--putting the situation into clear terms for those who may be 50 but living with the heart of a 65 year old--appeared to be enough to motivate previously lackadaisical patients to take action to improve their heart health.  Imagine even how much more effective a tool such as this could be if it was paired with some simple guidelines for how to reduce that age through nutritious diet and getting regular physical activity!

  • 1. "People who know their 'heart age' make greater improvements to their heart health." Science Daily. 5 February 2014. Accessed 9 February 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140205103542.htm
  • 2. Zhang, Huabing; et al. "Discontinuation of Statins in Routine Care Settings: A Cohort Study." Annals of Internal Medicine. 2 April 2013. Accessed 11 February 2014. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1671715

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