The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week most Americans have a heart that is older than their age.
Medical experts say that in addition to our regular age, we all have a “heart age,” a figure that takes into account risk factors for heart disease such as age, blood pressure, excess weight and whether or not you smoke.
Put another way, if you’re fat, have high blood pressure, smoke and don’t exercise, your heart might as well be in a nursing home. For example, a 50-year-old woman who is obese, diabetic and has high blood pressure can have a heart age of 85, according to the CDC’s calculations.
As a Frank Sinatra fan (especially the classic “Young at Heart”), I found the idea of having an old heart age a bit hokey. As the song suggests, fairy tales can come true, right? Why can’t we all be young at heart?
Dr. Srinivas Murali, one of my favorite cardiologists in town, said the concept might come across as gimmicky, but he said some patients just don’t understand the gravity of cardiovascular risks. You can tell them smoking and diabetes will kill them until you’re blue in the face, but they will continue to smoke and eat at Krispy Kreme.
“Sometimes that message gets across; sometimes that message doesn’t get across,” said Murali, director of cardiovascular medicine for North Side-based Allegheny Health Network. “For an average lay person, it is sometimes difficult to understand how these various things are influencing the cardiovascular risk.”
Murali reminded me there’s nothing new about this heart age thing. The concept is the brainchild of scientists who worked on the Framingham Heart Study, which for years has been looking at the links between lifestyle and heart health among residents of a Massachusetts town.
“If you tell someone ‘Listen, you are 40 but your heart is 55,’ people have a better appreciation of the risk if you state it that way,” he said.
To come up with a person’s projected heart age, the CDC used data collected from every U.S. state as well as information from the Framingham study. The findings were grim: 69 million Americans have a heart that’s older than they are. Half of men have a heart age five or more years than their actual age. Two in five women have a heart age five or more years older than their age.
It’s important to know this because the older your heart is, the greater the risk of stroke and heart attack. All you need to do is look at the statistics: Roughly 800,000 Americans die of heart-related ailments every year.
If that’s not enough to scare you, think about the cost to our country. About one in six health care dollars is spent on cardiovascular disease in the United States, or more than $320 billion every year. By 2030, those costs are expected to reach $818 billion a year, according to the American Heart Association.
You pay for that every year — in those pesky, ever-increasing premiums for your health insurance, whether you’re covered by an employer-based plan or a government plan.
You’ll also pay for it with a shortened lifespan. So even if you feel young at heart, don’t be so sure. As Sinatra crooned, “if you should survive to a hundred and five, look at all you’ll derive out of being alive.”
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Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or [email protected]