Old at Heart? New Tool Calculates Heart's True Age

An image shows a human heart with a cardiogram
An image shows a human heart with a cardiogram (Image credit: heart-beat-130925)

A new tool helps even young people to estimate their risk for heart disease later in life, by calculating their heart's true age.

People's familial and lifestyle risk factors today contribute to their heart health when they get older, and should be considered when estimating their heart disease risk, according to new recommendations by researchers from several British medical societies, published today (March 25) in the BMJ journal Heart.

Current prevention strategies for heart disease are based on short-term, 10-year risk estimates, which are heavily dependent on age and gender, researchers said. Therefore, younger people and women tend to be excluded even if they are leading a lifestyle that puts them at high risk later in life.

The new calculator has been designed to identify such people and predict how many years they can expect to live before they have a heart attack or stroke, based on the growing body of evidence showing that there is a long buildup to heart disease, said the researchers from the board of Joint British Societies’ consensus recommendations for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (JBS3). [Top 10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

The JBS3 calculator takes into account people's current lifestyle, blood pressure, cholesterol level and medical conditions that may affect their heart.

For example, a 35-year-old woman who smokes, has a systolic blood pressure of 160 mm Hg (higher than normal levels below 120 mm Hg), and a total cholesterol of 7 mmol/L (higher than the desirable level of below 5.2 mmol/L, or 200 mg/dL), plus family members who have had heart disease early in life, would have a true heart age of 47 and expect to survive to age 71 without having a heart attack or stroke. Her 10-year risk would be less than 2 percent.

But if this woman quit smoking, cut her total cholesterol to 4 mmol/L and her systolic blood pressure to 130 mm Hg, her heart age would fall to 30. She could expect to live to age 85 before having a heart attack or stroke and reduce her 10-year risk to less than 0.25 percent.

Similarly for other people, knowing the true age of their heart can help them understand how they fare today, and how lifestyle changes and other preventive actions may reduce their risk estimates for the future.

For the majority of people, the calculator can show the potential gains from an early and sustained change to a healthier lifestyle rather than prescription of drugs, the researchers said.

Lifestyle changes that can protect the heart include quitting smoking, adopting a healthy diet, exercising and reducing sedentary activity.

Dying from heart disease has declined over the past 40-50 years, particularly in high-income countries. However, heart disease remains the first cause of death. More patients are surviving their first heart attack or stroke, but they remain at high risk, the researchers said.

Nevertheless, most surveys suggest that the majority of the public underestimate their lifetime risk of developing and dying of heart disease, and consider cancer to be a greater threat despite robust evidence to the contrary, the researchers said.

In the United States, heart disease causes 598,000 deaths every year, 200,000 of which are preventable. Cancer is the second cause of death in the country, taking about 575,000 lives yearly, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.