You’ve likely heard that heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S. What’s even more alarming is that heart disease, which used to be a disease of later life, is now being diagnosed in younger adults. The ability to identify risk factors before they cause heart disease is crucial to moving towards a healthier trend and reducing mortality from heart disease. An online tool is now available that can help young people to identify heart disease and stroke risk so they can modify habits and limit later-in-life heart disease.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is a well-recognized source of health news and health innovation. They’ve created a Healthy Heart Tool in the form of an online quiz that allows users to answer a series of quick questions in order to assess:
- Risk of sustaining a heart attack or stroke in the following 20 years
- Identify healthy lifestyle habits they use and habits they can improve
- Individualized suggestions that can help to lower the risk further
The tool quiz covers nine lifestyle factors that are linked to heart disease risk. They include: smoking, weight, exercise, drinking alcohol, eating fruits, eating vegetables, choosing whole grains, eating nuts, sugary drink habit and consumption of red and processed meats. Researchers wanted to see just how accurate the free tool is at identifying at-risk individuals. The results of the study were published in the September 2017 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.
The researchers used data from the CARDIA study which began in 1985 with a group of over 5000 African-American and Caucasian men and women between the ages of 18 to 30 years of age. The goal of CARDIA was to look at developing heart disease, identifying clinical and subclinical risk factors. Follow up evaluations were done in years two, five, ten, twenty and thirty, after baseline. Data was collected on weight and body mass changes, the development of subclinical atherosclerotic plaque, dietary and exercise habits, tobacco and alcohol habits, medical changes, family history findings, and the relationship to evolution of heart disease. The data sets were perfect for this study that examined the predictions of the online tool.
Among the subjects that participated in CARDIA, about nine percent had at least one clinical risk factor for heart disease. During the 30 years of the study, 64 women had heart attacks or strokes, which translated to an annual risk of 0.9 events for every 1000 women. Among the men, 99 had a total of 104 events for a risk rate of 1.75 for every 1000 men annually.
The researchers who assessed the Healthy Heart Tool’s accuracy found that the online lifestyle tool did “moderately well” at predicting heart disease risk, when matched to findings from the CARDIA study. All nine lifestyle factors included in the online tool survey, alone or in combination, impact heart disease risk, based on what we know from other studies.
Unique to the study’s findings was the ability to identify nine risk factors linked to heart disease risk decades later, even in young adults who at the time did not have medically measurable clinical risk factors like hypertension, diabetes or high cholesterol. In fact, of the group of subjects that ended up having a cardiac event in their later decades, most had the worst Healthy Heart Tool scores. That means that these individuals, if they had the app available some 30 years ago, might have been able to immediately see how high their risk was for a down-the-road heart attack or stroke AND they would have been able to modify the habits or risk factors.
Being able to modify your health script is the way to prevent, delay or limit disease. Finding simple, affordable, accurate, and accessible ways to identify risk factors like this tool can be a game changer when trying to limit or reduce rates of heart attacks and strokes.
When it comes to health status, we know that even strong genetic influences can be intercepted. If you have a strong family history of heart disease, then any measures you can take to limit “inevitable health risk,” can lead to a longer life, delay of serious health issues, or at minimum, better quality of life. If you yourself are “causing heart disease” because of unhealthy lifestyle choices, then maybe a tool that offers simple information can inspire habit changes.
The following are ten modifiable risk-reduction recommendations:
- Smoking – Don’t start and if you do have a habit, seek help to quit
- Weight – Adopt a weight loss program to lose excess weight, especially the weight that is called central obesity (in your gut)
- Exercise – Increase your daily physical activity and find ways to meet recommended fitness goals
- Consumption of alcohol – If you don’t drink then there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to start drinking alcohol. If you do drink then target the recommended weekly alcohol consumption guidelines that are considered heart healthy.
- Fruits – Eating four to five servings daily boosts health thanks to a range of vitamins, phytonutrients and fiber. If these servings replace poor food choices it’s a “double win.”
- Vegetables – Similar to fruit, eating five servings daily (fresh or steamed is best) means you get the health benefits of a variety of nutrients plus heart-healthy fiber. Just remember to limit sauces and unhealthy cooking oils or cooking methods like frying.
- Whole grains – It’s clear that Americans are eating too many processed grains. Choosing whole grains can help to boost heart health. It is however, important to limit the number of serving of grain carbohydrates that you eat daily. A dietician or nutritionist can help you to determine appropriate choices and amounts.
- Nuts – Nuts are a great source of healthy fats. They are considered plant-based proteins and are quite satiating. Research suggests that a daily serving (about 150 calories) supports heart health.
- Sugary drinks – Zero daily servings should be the goal.
- Red and processed meats – These food items should be considered treats and consumption should be limited. They tend to be high in heart-clogging saturated fat and sodium.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”