#121 Is Your Heart Age Older Than You Are?September 6th, 2015 by Dr. John Day
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Is Your Heart Age Older Than You Are?
“You are only as old as your heart,” said a world famous cardiologist during a lecture to my medical school class at Johns Hopkins 24 years ago. At the time I did not understand what he meant, now I do. The amount of years you have left can be predicted by your heart age.
According to a CDC study this past week, the average American adult has a heart age that is nearly 7 years older than they are. In Utah we have the youngest hearts in the country. However, even in Utah our average heart age is still 4.3 years older than our actual ages.
How old is your heart? In this article I will not only show you how you can calculate your heart age but also how you can reverse your heart age. If you would rather not read this article, here is the link to a TV interview I did on this blog article.
Calculate Your Heart Age
How old is your heart? Here is a link to an online heart age calculator. Take this one-minute test now before reading on.
If you chose not to calculate your heart age at this time, your heart age is calculated by your gender, age, systolic blood pressure, smoking status, diabetes status, and your body mass index (BMI). As you might have suspected, to be young at heart it is best if you are a woman, have a low systolic blood pressure, don’t smoke, don’t have diabetes, and have a very lean body weight.
This online heart age calculator is based on data from the legendary Framingham Heart Study. These are the same data the CDC used to report that our hearts are aging much faster than we are.
How Does Your Heart Age?
Just how does the heart age and how does this affect your lifespan? In general, there are three ways your heart ages.
1. Plaque Build-Up (Atherosclerosis)
The first way the heart ages is through plaque build up in your arteries which is also called atherosclerosis. This plaque build up is composed of cholesterol, calcium deposits, and other debris. As plaque builds up it can block blood flow and can even cause heart attacks and strokes.
This plaque build up can start at a very young age if you choose an unhealthy lifestyle. For example, in an autopsy study of U.S. service men who died during the Korean War, researchers discovered that at an average age of just 22, 77% of the service men already had atherosclerosis.
2. Scarring of the Heart Muscle
If you are not careful with your lifestyle, your heart progressively accumulates micro scars over time. These scars can cause the heart to dilate and develop arrhythmias. For example, this micro scarring is one of the main causes of atrial fibrillation.
While some degree of micro scarring occurs with the natural aging process, you can dramatically increase the scarring with poor lifestyle choices. Perhaps this is the reason why I am seeing younger and younger patients in my cardiology practice with atrial fibrillation.
3. The Heart Muscle Becomes Stiff
In some ways the heart is like trying to blow up a balloon. In order for the heart to pump properly, the ventricles need to fill up with blood. Once they fill they can then pump blood to the rest of the body.
However, if the ventricles become too stiff they cannot fill. If the ventricles don’t fill properly, like that stiff balloon you try to blow up for your child’s birthday party, then there is no blood inside of the ventricles to pump. This can cause heart failure even though the heart squeezes normally. Once again aging and lifestyle factors determine whether or not the heart becomes stiff.
Four Ways to Reverse Your Heart Age
If you are like most Americans, your heart age is much older than you are. How can you reverse this so that your heart, brain, and other organs don’t age prematurely and leave you suffering from chronic medical conditions?
1. Keep Your Blood Pressure in Check
When it comes to the heart and cardiovascular system, in general, the lower the blood pressure the better. There is nothing magical about a blood pressure of 120/80 mmHg. In fact, according to the online heart age calculator, the best systolic blood pressure for heart age is 90 mmHg. While a systolic blood pressure of 90 mmHg is best to slow heart aging, for 80 million Americans that number is 140 mmHg or higher.
Contrary to popular belief, blood pressure is something that is under our control. If caught early, most of my patients can get their blood pressure into the normal range naturally with lifestyle changes. Others may require medications to reduce blood pressure to a safe level.
I once had a systolic blood pressure of 140 mmHg or higher. Once I cleaned up my diet, increased my movement throughout the day, managed stress, and lost 30 pounds my systolic blood pressure dropped to 110 mmHg without any medications. I have even had patients who have dropped their systolic blood pressure up to 50 points with aggressive lifestyle changes including significant weight loss. To learn more about how to reduce your blood pressure naturally, please read this article I wrote.
2. Lose the Refined Carbohydrates
Smoking, diabetes, and obesity are the three major causes of premature aging. Diabetes dramatically ages all of the organs, including the heart and brain. Indeed, studies show that up to 10 years of life can be lost due to poorly controlled diabetes and obesity.
Fortunately, studies also show that 90% of adult onset diabetes can be prevented through a healthy lifestyle. First and foremost to preventing, reversing, or controlling diabetes is to eliminate all refined carbohydrates from your diet. Many researchers believe that our current diabetes epidemic is really just a manifestation of excessive refined carbohydrates. In other words, too much sugar in your diet.
Basically, refined carbohydrates mean sugar and everything else that behaves like sugar in your body. These include 99% of the breads and breakfast cereals sold in the U.S., fruit juice, soda pop, sports drinks, crackers, french fries, chips, pizza, pastries, pancakes, waffles, and most processed foods.
Because I am genetically at very high risk for developing diabetes, and also enjoy eating bread, I generally only eat Ezekiel Bread. Ezekiel Bread, as well as other flourless breads, can be purchased at health food stores or grocery stores that cater to health conscientious consumers. If breakfast cereal is a must for you, there is even very low glycemic Ezekiel breakfast cereals. For options on healthy drinks, other than water, please read the article I wrote, My Top 10 Healthiest Drinks.
3. Log At Least 10,000 Steps Daily
When it comes to heart age and longevity, maintaining a healthy weight is critical. In addition to eliminating all refined carbohydrates from your diet, staying physically active is critical to maintaining a healthy weight.
Probably the easiest way to do this is to just log your steps. Studies show that walking 10,000 steps daily, for as little as 6 months, can take 3 cm off of your waistline alone. Without regular physical activity, studies show that you will probably gain 1-2 extra pounds each year. In just 10 years that could add up to a significant obesity problem.
Logging 10,000 steps a day is not hard. I have patients in their 90s who faithfully log at least 10,000 steps daily. I know because they proudly show me their pedometer data when they come to see me for clinic visits.
While the body mass index (BMI) used in this online heart age calculator is not perfect, it provides an estimation of whether or not you are at a healthy weight. The goal BMI is 18.5 to 24.9. To learn what your BMI is, here is a BMI calculator.
4. Breathe Clean Air
It goes without saying that smoking is probably the worst thing you can do to prematurely age your body. Indeed, studies show that every cigarette smoked takes 11 minutes off of your life. Not only do smokers lose out on 10 years of life but they are also 23 times more likely to suffer from cancer.
Is this online heart age calculator completely accurate? Of course not. However, it can give you a rough idea of how fast your heart is aging.
If you heart is prematurely aging then you can bet that the rest of your body is premature aging as well. Studies show that if we can take care of our hearts then most people can reach age 90 in great health.
What are you doing to keep your heart young? Please leave your comments below for our community to read.