What's Your Heart Age?
You may feel young at heart, and know your chronological age, but do you know your heart age? That question might sound strange, but there are now various online risk calculators that will tell you whether your heart is younger or older than you.
The idea behind the tools, such as the World Heart Federation’s Heart Age calculator, is that giving your heart an “age” may capture your attention better than the traditional ways doctors discuss risk with their patients.
Doctors have long used their own risk calculators to estimate patients’ chances of having a heart attack (or, more recently, a stroke) in the next 10 years. Those tools use factors such as age, sex, smoking history, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels to arrive at a risk percentage.
For example, the latest professional calculator from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association uses such data to determine your risk of heart attack or stroke in the next decade. If it is 7.5 percent or higher, recent guidelines recommend that you and your doctor discuss the use of a cholesterol-lowering statin drug, along with appropriate lifestyle measures.
When it comes to changing people’s mindsets and lifestyle habits, however, a simple heart age might be more convincing than a statistic. That has been the theory, at least. Now there’s evidence to back it up.
What the research says
In a study of 3,153 middle-aged adults, researchers randomly assigned participants to receive either general lifestyle advice or more specific information about their cardiovascular risks—either the traditional way (with a percentage) or via the Heart Age calculator. A year later, people in the Heart Age group had lost more weight, lowered their blood pressure, and cholesterol to a greater degree, and were more likely to have quit smoking than participants in either of the other two groups.
The study, published in February 2014 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, found that on average, the Heart Age group trimmed 1.5 years from their heart age—vs. a few months in the group given a traditional risk score. The group that received only general advice saw their heart age creep up.
The Heart Age calculation is based on the same factors used in traditional calculators, with a few additions—including ethnicity, weight, and height. Once your heart age is determined, you can also answer questions about your diet and lifestyle habits, and get some advice on healthy changes. But remember: The tool is not a substitute for traditional risk estimates or your doctor’s advice.
Heart Age is not the only calculator available. The Joint British Societies—a collection of United Kingdom medical groups—recently unveiled its own calculator. In addition to giving your heart an age, the calculator estimates your likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years, and tells you how long you can expect to live heart attack- and stroke-free.
If you choose to use an online calculator, take the results with the proverbial grain of salt. Research shows that even the traditional risk calculators used by doctors around the world can arrive at different estimates for the same person.
Not much is known about how heart-age calculators compare. Recently, a small study examined the Heart Age tool and one from the National Heart Foundation of New Zealand. It found that the two calculators usually gave different estimates for the same patient—partly because of differences in how the tools worked, but also because users sometimes misunderstood the questions.
Interestingly, although study participants tended to be skeptical about the accuracy of their heart age, in general they said the results prompted them to consider lifestyle changes.
The point is that these online tools provide estimates only. But if any of these measures of your cardiovascular health will encourage you to make wise lifestyle choices or stick with your medications, then the calculator will have served its purpose.