A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday revealed 69 million Americans aged 30-74 to have a heart age five years older than their actual age—a number that puts them at significantly higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
The data comes from the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term cardiovascular study that began in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1948. “Heart age”—the age of an individual’s heart and blood vessels based on their risk of disease—is calculated using things like high blood pressure and smoking history.
On a call Tuesday, CDC Director Thomas Frieden stressed that external threats like Ebola should not distract from the danger that is “right within us.” An estimated 85.6 million Americans are living with a form of cardiovascular disease or the aftermath of a stroke. The condition kills roughly 2,150 Americans each day from cardiovascular diseases, or one person every 40 seconds.
“To know that your heart is de facto older than you are is scary—and it should be because it means you have a higher risk of heart attack or stroke,” said Frieden. “You can’t turn back the clock in general but you can turn back the clock on your heart age.”
Studies on heart age have been performed in the past, but none analyzing it through the lens of population data. The result showed variations in heart age that are influenced not simply by gender and region but—most significantly—by race and ethnicity.
Half of U.S. men and nearly half of women presented heart ages five years older than their age. In men, this phenomenon was worse, with males registering an average heart age eight years higher than their actual age (for women it stayed at five). Geography influenced the numbers as well, with states in the South shown to be particularly susceptible to higher rates. Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama earned the unenviable title of most adults with a heart age five years older than their own. Utah, Colorado, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts came in at the lowest.
The biggest discrepancy was found among race/ethnic groups. While all were shown to have heart ages superseding their biological one, African Americans came in significantly higher. Both African-American men and women averaged a heart age 11 years higher than their own. Frieden called the numbers “distressing and truly shocking,” emblematic of “racial disparities” in cardiovascular health.
“Too many U.S. adults have a heart age years older than their real age, increasing their risk of heart disease and stroke,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.
According to the CDC, heart age was created to “more effectively communicate a person’s risk of dying from heart attack or stroke—and to show what can be done to lower that risk.” On HeartAge.me, a website launched by the World Heart Foundation in 2009, more than 6 million people have reportedly calculated their heart age. The CDC links to a similarly simply heart age tool, which Frieden believes allows people to “take back control” of their health.
The 2015 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, a joint report by the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health (among other agencies), reveals sobering statistics. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, resulting in 17.3 million deaths per year—a number experts predict will spike to 23.6 million by 2030. The disease claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined.
The good news, says Dr. Matthew Ritchey, an epidemiologist at the CDC and adviser on the study, is that heart age has shown to be highly effective in reducing risk for heart attack and disease. “Even though it may not include all the variables [associated with heart disease], ultimately it has been linked to these outcomes,” says Ritchey.
While some may consider the tool gimmicky, Frieden says it’s not only fact-based—it’s life saving. “As a science-based organization, we look at the facts,” he said, citing multiple studies that have shown it to be effective in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. “This tool helps you locate a ticking time bomb inside of you, then helps you diffuse it.”
Barbara A. Bowman, Ph.D., director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, provided further proof of the tool’s importance. “Because so many U.S. adults don’t understand their cardiovascular disease risk, they are missing out on early opportunities to prevent future heart attacks or strokes,” said Bowman. “About three in four heart attacks and strokes are due to risk factors that increase heart age, so it’s important to continue focusing on efforts to improve heart health and increase access to early and affordable detection and treatment resources nationwide.”
Beyond diet and exercise, smoking is the single biggest indicator of cardiovascular risk. Quitting, said Frieden, can lower your heart age by as many as 14 years. “Everyone deserves to be young at heart,” he concluded. “Or at least not to be old at heart.”