How old is your heart? You might be surprised at the answer. Most (75%) of American adults have a “heart age” older than their actual age. This means they are at higher risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke. It also means a much higher rate of needless, preventable deaths. Heart disease kills more Americans than the next four leading causes of death combined: cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, accidents and stroke.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed the concept of “heart age” as a way to help Americans understand the importance of maintaining a healthy heart. Heart age is the calculated age of a person’s cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) based on his or her risk factors.

The risk factors most associated with heart age include blood pressure, smoking tobacco, diabetes and body mass index that measures obesity. Heart age also varies by race, gender, region of the country you live in, and other characteristics such as income, education and access to health care. Heart age increases with age, but it decreases for those with greater education levels and higher household income.

Overall, American adult males have a heart age 8 years older than their actual age; 5 years older for adult females. African-Americans’ average heart age is 11 years older than their age, for both men and women. Learn what your heart age is here.

To help your family avoid heart problems, review these common risk factors that can “age” your heart much faster than is healthy for you. Work with your health care team on a plan to reduce your risk for each factor you have.

Risk factors

Certain risk factors increase our chances of having heart disease, heart attack or stroke. Some risk factors can be modified, producing a healthier heart and longer life. While other risk factors are set at birth and cannot be changed, the way you live your life can have a strong impact on decreasing their influence on your heart health.

Heart-health risk factors you cannot change include:

  • Family history – If your parents or close relatives have high blood pressure (HBP) or heart disease, you are more likely to also have it. Prevention is essential to halt an inherited risk for heart problems.
  • Race – African-Americans, for example, have higher risk because they develop HBP earlier in life and are less likely to achieve a healthy blood pressure, even with medications.
  • Gender – Women over age 65 have a higher risk than men of the same age. Men younger than 45 have a higher risk than women of the same age. Both genders’ risk is equal between the ages of 45 to 64.
  • Age – blood vessels lose flexibility as they age, which can increase blood pressure throughout your cardio-vascular system.

Risk factors that can be modified by your lifestyle choices include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, pipes or inhaling someone else’s second-hand smoke
  • Inactivity – your heart is a muscle and it needs regular workouts to stay healthy
  • Poor diet, especially highly salted foods, added sugars and trans fats
  • Drinking too much alcohol (more than an average of more than two drinks a day for men; one drink a day for women)
  • Being overweight or obese – because it increases the strain on the heart, raises cholesterol and make diabetes more likely to develop
  • High blood cholesterol means a high level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and a low level of good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Diabetes mellitus seriously increases your risk of heart disease, even when it’s under control. The risks are even greater if blood sugar (glucose) is not well controlled. About 85 percent of people with diabetes, over the age of 65, will die of some form of heart disease or stroke.
  • Uncontrolled stress may be a contributing factor because it affects other health behaviors and other risk factors. For example, if you’re stressed you may overeat or smoke too much.
  • Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder that causes breathing to pause or be blocked, preventing deep, restorative sleep.
  • Illegal drug use – stimulants such as cocaine or amphetamines – can trigger a spasm in coronary arteries that can cause a heart attack.
  • Autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can increase heart attack risk.

HBP is a condition that most people will have some time during their life. About two-thirds of people over age 65 have HBP.

For most people, the cause of their HBP is unknown. HBP can be dangerous because it increases the heart’s work load, which thickens the heart muscle, making it lose strength and become stiffer. It becomes less effective at pumping blood throughout the body. It also increases your chance of having heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, stroke, eye damage, memory loss, kidney failure and even death.

Maintaining good blood pressure readings is the first and most important step you can take to have a healthy heart throughout your life. The safest blood pressure is 120/80 or less. HBP means your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher. If your level is between 120/80 and 139/89 you have prehypertension. This means you are likely to develop HBP in the future.

Blood pressure is affected by exercise, time of day, stress, the foods you eat and other factors. Your doctor will make a diagnosis of HBP based on an average of two or more readings, taken on two or more days.