Believe it or not, your heart may be aging more quickly or slowly than the rest of you! Because heart health is so key to longevity, heart experts have come up with a heart age calculator that estimates your heart’s age. Many can be found online, and all ask you to plug in the same basic factors.
Whether it’s your doctor or an online calculator from a reputable website, you’ll be asked to provide the basic information about factors that contribute to your heart’s “age.” These are:
Unfortunately, aging is itself a risk factor for a heart that’s “older” than you are. Even people who eschew fried foods and saturated fats can’t entirely escape the damage that aging does to the arteries. In addition, the heart muscle itself tends to both thicken and grow weaker as the years go by.
Among the other heart-related issues that the aging process creates is the risk of heart-valve disease. Over the years, calcium may be deposited within the heart valves, which can cause potentially serious problems like mitral valve prolapse and aortic stenosis.
As you probably already know, men are at a higher risk of heart attacks than women. The average age for males who have their first heart attack is 66, while for women it’s 70. It’s believed that part of this heightened risk for men comes from their slightly larger hearts, as well as thicker heart wall chambers. As a result, stress affects men’s hearts differently; artery constriction from stress causes blood pressure to spike.
It’s important to remember, however, that while older women are less at risk than men their age, menopause does raise the potential for heart disease. That’s because after menopause, women experience the decline of the protective hormone estrogen. Among its other effects, estrogen keeps artery walls more flexible, which in turn facilitates proper circulation.
Most calculators will include entries for both height and weight. This allows it to calculate body mass index (BMI). The BMI index is an estimate of the amount of body fat you currently have. Of course, precise measurements of BMI can’t be established just with the height and weight figures. But it does give a reasonable estimate of your BMI, which contributes to the “age” of your heart.
A healthy BMI for both men and women is considered to be somewhere in the 18.5 to 24.5 range. For a 5’4” adult, that means that anywhere from 110 to 140 is in the healthy range. An adult who is about 5’8” tall has a healthy BMI if her weight falls between 125 and 160.
Even given the broad weight range for each height category, perfectly healthy adults can fall below or above the range. Some extremely fit adults might find that their weight lands them in the technically “overweight” range according to a standard BMI calculator because muscle weighs more than fat. That’s why some heart age calculators give you the option to enter your cholesterol (lipids) reading instead of your BMI.
A heart age calculator almost always includes an entry for systolic blood pressure. That’s the “top” number you hear when doctors refer to a healthy blood pressure reading such as 110 over 70. The lower number is known as diastolic blood pressure. Systolic numbers measure the blood pressure in your veins when your heart is beating, while diastolic refers to the blood pressure in your veins when your heart is at rest.
If the pressure in your veins is consistently too high, it leads to thickening of the artery walls, which decreases proper healthy blood circulation. This thickening puts you at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. The systolic reading is considered a better indicator of risk, which is why the top number is included in the heart age calculator.
You can get your blood pressure checked at local pharmacies and even at home. But make sure to schedule regular physicals, too, which will have the most efficient blood pressure measuring devices.
A heart age calculator almost always has a “Yes/No” entry for the question “Do you take blood pressure medication?” A “Yes” answer indicates that high blood pressure exists. But more importantly, it shows that steps are being taken to control that high blood pressure.
Heart age calculators ask you if you smoke. Smoking is just plain bad for you, period. Most of us are aware of the potential for severe lung damage. Yet smoking also ages your heart. The nicotine content can raise blood pressure. In addition, the carbon monoxide contained in cigarettes damages blood vessel lining, further increasing heart attack risks. For that reason, a slender woman who controls her weight by smoking is potentially aging her heart just as much as an overweight woman may be.
The high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes carry several health risks. Among them is atherosclerosis, which comes from plaque buildup in the arteries. Diabetes can also cause abnormal heart rhythms and the thickening of the heart muscle. For these reasons, people with diabetes — especially diabetes that is poorly controlled — are more at risk of heart attacks.
There are additional factors that aren’t easy to plug into a generic online calculator — yet they matter to heart health. Heredity can put you more at risk of heart disease. So can your lifestyle, the amount of stress in your life, other chronic illnesses, and even your race. While not all of these can be altered, knowing that your “heart age” may be more complex than it appears from a basic questionnaire can inspire you to work on the factors that are within your control.
Unlike your chronological age, your heart’s age can actually be reversed, with a few lifestyle changes. Few, if any, of the things you need for better heart health will come as a surprise. But it’s always important to review these goals and see if there are additional ones to add to your checklist.