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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