Is Your Heart Older Than Your Actual Age?

February is “American Heart Month,” which the CDC calls in the “Strong Men Put Their Health First” post as “a great time to commit to a healthy lifestyle and make small changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health.”

While I agree making changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health is important, why the CDC wrote this post about men is beyond me. Especially because heart disease is THE NUMBER 1 KILLER OF WOMEN in the US. Though this is frustrating, I provided a link to the CDC male-oriented page because there’s useful general info there. And here’s a link to About Heart Disease In Women – and as a reminder, heart attack symptoms can be different for women – jaw pain or heartburn in women as opposed to crushing chest pain, for example!  Read more in my blog post, Heart Attack Symptoms In Women.

The CDC also has an initiative called “Million Hearts” (@MillionHearts) and their main online page has a great “Additional Resources and Events” section with links to info on preventing heart disease, physical activity, and heart-healthy recipes. There are Facebook and Twitter links to follow, and something called HOW OLD IS YOUR HEART in both video and online calculator form.

This ‘How Old Is Your Heart’ thing intrigued me, so I clicked on the video which explains that your heart can be older than your actual age. While slightly amusing, the more important bit, IMHO, is the CDC’s actual ‘heart health calculator.’ (Note, the calculator is only for people 30-74 with no history of heart disease.)

I was surprised that to use the CDC’s Heart Health Calculator you need only two inputs: your systolic blood pressure (the top number) and your BMI. No cholesterol input at all! And, not to worry that you don’t know your BMI – you can quickly calculate it with the simple online BMI calculator (this is the official one from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute – frankly, googling ‘BMI calculator’ nets one that’s easier to view.)

As I said, I was stunned to see not one mention of cholesterol.

OK, I thought. Let me give it a go anyway – even with no cholesterol input. Given that I am not a smoker, and don’t have diabetes (the other inputs on this heart age calculator), I expected that my calculated heart age would be lower than my actual age, because I’m fit, with normal blood pressure.

I was stunned to find heart age using this calculator exactly equalled my actual age.

How could that be? If my all-pretty-positive inputs into the calculator resulted in a ‘same as age’ heart age result, that must mean that many (most?) using this calculator must end up with a calculated heart age OLDER than their actual age.

Really?  Could that be true?

And why isn’t cholesterol figured into the ‘heart age’ equation?

Puzzled, I played with the inputs to see what causes the heart to ‘age’ most in this calculator.  It’s not the BMI (mine is a pretty low/normal 22) – changing that a few points didn’t affect heart age much. Turns out, the key measure must be blood pressure because changing the systolic blood pressure by just a few points had a pretty drastic effect on heart age. Thus, it seems that – at least for this ‘heart age calculator’ – high blood pressure is the most dangerous condition / ages your heart the most. Certainly more than the not-even-mentioned cholesterol.

Maybe cholesterol is missing because the medical community is still at odds over the changed 2013 Guidelines for Cholesterol Treatment (and the faction who is behind this calculator doesn’t believe cholesterol is a big deal?) Or maybe I’m reading too much into all this…

Net, while I’m not entirely positive what the key takeaway here is, it does seem prudent to continue to monitor cholesterol along with blood pressure. Because frankly, a lo-co lifestyle – exercise and diet to lower cholesterol – will also help keep blood pressure down!

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Walking Counts as Exercise… REALLY!

On NPR this morning, I heard Renee Montagne utter this intriguing line, “About half of all Americans say they exercise regularly.” I literally laughed out loud as exercise is a big topic of conversation this week in my house, with my parents visiting from Florida. My dad had a second heart surgery last year and my mom has high cholesterol, and they really would benefit from regular exercise. I know this. They know this.  And yet…they are not among the apparently half of Americans exercising regularly.

Maybe peer pressure (as opposed to kid pressure) would help? So I listened keenly. In fact, after noting that half of Americans say they exercise regularly, Ms. Montagne continued with proof that it’s true:

“That’s the finding of a recent poll NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The most popular exercises are cardio/aerobic using treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationery bikes. But leading the pack: going for a walk!”

I looked up the poll: Sports And Health In America. Published in June 2015, this study interviewed 2,506 adults age 18 and older who were interviewed on the phone, in English and Spanish, between January 29 – March 8, 2015. While this study is 50+ pages of intriguing facts, one thing I did not see is a breakout of exercise among those age 70 and older, which I could have used as fodder for an exercise discussion with my parents. Sigh.

But no matter, as there was a key nugget I could use with my folks! Right after Ms. Montagne’s segment was a ‘Health News’ story entitled, “Take A Hike To Do Your Heart And Spirit Good.” In this piece, Patti Neighmond discussed a topic near and dear to my heart (apologies for bad pun): is walking REALLY exercise?

Frankly, I’m of two minds about walking. For my parents, I have tried to convince them that walking is vital — that to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and have a healthier heart, they need to walk, daily. I’ve posited that the lower energy my father feels one year post successful heart surgery is partially due to the fact that he’s not exercising enough. Even he admits his cardiologist has said the same thing. I’ve gifted both parents workout clothes and iPods (and conducted remote IT sessions to load music). I’ve asked. I’ve cajoled. To little effect. That said, big kudos to you, Dad, for you for getting on the treadmill at my house this morning; color me very impressed!

And yet, when I was injured this winter and could not play tennis for several months, I didn’t walk. Instead, I was a slug (a very sad slug) and did nothing. The result was unsurprising: I gained weight and my cardio conditioning lapsed. All because as much as I preached to my folks that walking is exercise, in the end I guess I didn’t believe it.

Turns out, I should have.

Back to Patti Neighmond, who wondered: “Is Walking Really Exercise?” (emphasis is mine). She even asked it the same way I would, with some degree of snark:

“But are they kidding themselves to think a moderate walk is really helping them much, exercise-wise? Should we all be power-walking or jogging if we want to count that activity as good for us?”

Ms. Neighmond went on to answer:

“Dr. Tim Church, who studies the effects of physical activity at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, is reassuring on that score.”

He says, “Too many people think you have to exercise really, really hard to get a benefit, and nothing could be further from the truth. You’re actually getting probably 95 percent or more of the benefits when you’re walking as compared to jogging.”

The entire NPR segment is about five minutes long. I found it pretty interesting; you can listen to it here.


Ms. Neighmond wraps up with this recommendation: “Federal Health Officials suggest 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. That’s about 30 minutes, five days a week. If you’re walking, it would be a moderate pace – so you can still carry on a conversation.”

The obvious next question: what’s a moderate pace? The answer is not straightforward as it depends on your overall fitness level. According to the Center for Disease Control’s very interesting Measuring Physical Activity Intensity page, a moderate pace is a ‘brisk walk’ of 3 miles per hour or faster. That translates to a pace of 20 minutes per mile.

That felt slow to me so I kept researching. Turns out, this pace would not qualify as a brisk walk for me, personally, since my cardiovascular fitness is pretty high (despite my high cholesterol). According to an article I found on about.com, How Fast Is Brisk Walking, “fitter people still will not be in a moderately intense exercise zone at that pace. A pace of 15 minutes per mile, or four miles per hour, is more likely to put fitter people into a moderately intense exercise zone.” So for many, a 20 minutes per mile walk will qualify as brisk, while others will want to shoot for 15 minutes per mile.

As I’m inspired by goals, I’m energized by attempting to hit 15 minutes per mile. Others might prefer to forget about targeting a pace and instead count (brisk) steps. I know many people using a FitBit to hit a daily step goal (have you read David Sedaris’ hilarious FitBit story, Stepping Out? And relatedly, I had no idea my iPhone 5 was counting my steps for the past year; check out the ‘health’ app to see if yours is too!)  For still others, tracking to a particular pace or counting steps would be (gasp!) the opposite of fun. For these folks getting out frequently for a brisk walk with a friend is what will motivate.

So find what inspires you…and just get out there and briskly walk!

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September is National Cholesterol Education Month

Ah, September.  The time of cool, crisp weather (sometimes) and back-to-school (did you hear the collective Mom sigh?) Oh, and National Cholesterol Education Month.

What?

Who  knew there was a National Cholesterol Education Month?

Not me, and I, um, write about cholesterol.  Weekly.

As a marketing professional, this is distressing. As a writer, I can’t believe it took me until September 29th to pen a post about September being National Cholesterol Education Month.

And no, it doesn’t get any ‘ringier’ the more I type “National Cholesterol Education Month.”

How about this: NCEM.

Nope. Not catchy either.

OK, so I give up on making National Cholesterol Education Month sound tantalizing. So let’s get on with what it is.

Way back in November 1985, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) – a division of the National Institute of Health – launched the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP).  The stated goal of the program is to “raise awareness and understanding about high blood cholesterol as a risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD) and the benefits of lowering cholesterol levels as a means of preventing CHD.”

And while big advances have been made in reducing cholesterol and heart disease since the 1980s, the NCEP is a government program, and is, um, not well marketed.  To the public at least.

The crazy thing is: there is some fantastic information on the National Cholesterol Education Program website – it’s just buried in an extraordinarily difficult to navigate interface.  If you manage to realize that ‘Patients/General Public‘ is the right link to click — which it is, there’s a ton of great info buried in this page — you’re left to wonder where to go next to actually find the information. Because, um, clicking the link on the title of what you’d like to open doesn’t work (the trick is to click ‘PDF’ next to it).

So in an effort to actually ‘educate’ – and by that I mean to provide links that are easy to open so you can actually find out more about cholesterol, here are links to the good info buried on the NCEP site:

The NCEP wants you to know it’s important to get your cholesterol checked to reduce the risk of heart disease – still the #1 killer in the US.  Who should get their cholesterol checked and how often?

“The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked every 5 years.”

And if you’re like me, you need your cholesterol checked far more frequently than every 5 years.  For me, it’s annual.  The recommendation is a more frequent cholesterol check (possibly annually) if:

  • your total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or higher,
  • you are a man older than age 45 or a woman older than age 50,
  • your HDL cholesterol is lower than 40 mg/dL,
  • and/or you have other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

As it’s September (well, for a few more hours) and September is National Consumer Education Month (nope, still not catchy), please make an appointment to get your cholesterol checked.  I’m due for my annual check in November.  How about you?

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