You may think that your heart is as old as you are, but it’s possible that your heart is aging faster than your chronological age. Half of adult men and 20 percent of adult women in this country have a heart that is five years older than their chronological age, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For black people, the gap can be as high as 11 years.
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The more your heart ages, the higher your risk for heart attack, stroke and other related problems. Aging hearts are more likely to have stiffer, calcified arteries, thickened and stiffer muscle tissue, abnormalities in the conduction system and dysfunctional valves.
The genes you inherit from Mom and Dad may play a role, but risk factors for heart disease are what cause a heart to age prematurely, says cardiologist Michael Rocco, MD.
The more risk factors you have — and the more severe they are — the more your heart ages, Dr. Rocco says.
While some of these cannot be modified, the majority are under your control. These risk factors, Dr. Rocco says, include:
- Chronological age — Heart disease risk begins to rise after age 55, as your blood vessels begin to stiffen and a lifelong buildup of plaque in the arteries starts interfering with the flow of blood.
- Gender — Men get heart disease about 10 years earlier than women. Women are generally protected by estrogen until after menopause, when their heart disease risk begins to match that of men.
- Family history — Your risk of heart disease is higher if your father or brother was diagnosed with it before age 55, or your mother or sister before age 65.
- Blood pressure — Blood pressure beyond 120/80 mm Hg ages your heart.
- Cholesterol — The higher your cholesterol level, the older your heart.
- Smoking — Any smoking raises the risk of heart attack, even if it’s only once in awhile. Exposure to secondhand smoke can be dangerous, too.
- Weight — Being overweight or obese taxes your heart.
- Diabetes — Diabetes or prediabetes puts you at greater risk for heart problems.
Turn back time
You are never too old to reduce your risk factors — and your heart’s age. Dr. Rocco says. Here are some things he recommends that you can do to help your heart stay young:
1. Take care of your chronic diseases or conditions. Keeping your blood pressure in the normal range can minimize your risk. The same goes for diabetes and high cholesterol. Other diseases, such as thyroid disease, and some medications may weaken the heart. Have regular checkups, follow your doctor’s treatment plan and take your medications as prescribed.
2. Maintain a normal weight. Increase your daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Eat plenty of fiber. Trade red meat for fish, chicken and legumes. You don’t have to eliminate your favorite foods completely, but you should avoid trans fats and eat saturated fats, salt and refined sugar sparingly. Cut back on between-meal snacking or reduce the portions of your favorite food.
3. Be active. The heart needs exercise to keep it in shape. Exercise increases your heart’s pumping power and helps deliver oxygen throughout your body. Regular exercise also helps keep weight and blood pressure under control and reduces stress. If you have an illness or disease that makes exercise difficult, look for a modified exercise program that’s more suited to your abilities.
4. Stop smoking. It is absolutely necessary to protect your heart. Tobacco is very addictive, and quitting is hard: The average person tries 7 times before succeeding. Your chances of success increase if you use three different stop-smoking aids simultaneously. Tell your doctor you’d like to quit and ask for a plan.
5. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Period.
6. Get regular checkups. Regular exams that include blood tests can help identify heart problems before they cause a heart attack or stroke.
7. Don’t ignore unusual symptoms. Listen to your body. If you develop any of these symptoms below, contact your physician immediately: