American Heart Month is not just for lovers. Long after the Valentine’s roses wilt, our hearts will require special attention for a long healthy life. It is the goal of The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to motivate Americans to adopt healthy lifestyles to prevent heart disease. And, in 2021, a healthy heart may be more important than ever to reduce the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
A recent study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that while many Americans believe that they are “young at heart”, it turns out that many have hearts older than their actual age. For example, the study found that the average American male heart is eight years older and the average American female heart is five years older than their chronological age.
The CDC’s findings may offer some explanation for the fact that many Americans die from heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure when compared to other people around the globe. Furthermore, while more Americans use heart medications more than other people in the world, heart attack and stroke continue to be the leading cause of death in the US, killing more than 80,000 each year.
The CDC has developed a new test to determine “Heart Age,” which has been found to be a much more reliable indicator of a person’s risk for heart disease. The heart age test will determine if your heart is older, younger or average for your age, which can be much more important for longevity than chronological age.
The CDC is encouraging people to take matters into their own hands …be proactive. In addition to calculating your Body Mass Index ((BMI), the CDC is asking people to use an online calculator to determine their heart age. The calculator will give a person a more accurate percentage of risk for heart attack or stroke. Based on the outcome, one must see their family physician or cardiologist to discuss the results and implement a plan.
Heart Age is very easy to use: You just need to enter your age, sex, blood pressure, whether you are treated for high blood pressure, whether you smoke or have diabetes, and your body mass index (BMI), with a handy calculator if you don’t know it. The tool gives you your risk for heart disease in the next ten years, compared with normal.
Enter: sex, blood pressure, (list if controlled), diabetes (list if controlled), smoking history, and body mass index (BMI), a simple height/weight calculation found on-line at www.bmicalculator.cc
Example: A 53 year old women with an acceptable BMI, may actually find that she is at great risk for suffering a heart attack or stroke because she smokes cigarettes and has uncontrolled high blood pressure. The calculator includes all the significant factors proven by science to affect a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke. These include: blood pressure, weight, BMI, blood sugar, cholesterol, age, sex and smoking history.
Example: 50 year old male smoker has uncontrolled high blood pressure of 140/96, no history of diabetes, and a BMI of 30 has a predicted heart age of 72 years. A female with a similar profile would have a heart age of 74 years.
To some, the solution may be obvious and for others it may be impossible. In the previous example of the 50 year old smoker, if he quit smoking for one year, he would halve reduced his heart age by 14 years (15 years for a woman). If he would reduce his blood pressure to 120, he would reduce his heart age by 6 years (10 years for a woman). And, if both risk factors were removed, he would reduce his heart age by 19 years (23 for a woman).
In the above examples, the 53 year old man does not have to take his 72 year old heart age as a death sentence.
What Individuals can do…
Require health plans to cover, with limited co pays or deductibles, preventative services such as blood pressure screening nutritional counseling, prescription exercise and tobacco cessation products.
Promote health, wellness through diet and exercise by sponsoring health fairs and establishing bike lanes and walking trails in the community.
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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician.
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.