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What is Your Heart’s “Real” Age?

By: NCSF  on:  Aug 4 2014
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The phrase “dog years” is often used by veterinarians and pet lovers. When used it is intended to refer to the correlation between a dog reaching maturity and aging – providing an easy comparison to human aging. But when it comes to your heart, is there such a thing as “heart years”? Cardiovascular research has pointed to the use of carotid intima-media thickness (IMT) scores to indicate heart age. The IMT (measured in mm) is based on average plaque thickness, and has been directly correlated with age. For example, average scores start at 0.56 mm, at age 40, and subsequently increase to 0.65 mm, 0.74 mm and 0.80 mm as age increases to 50, 60 and 65 years respectively. However, lifestyle factors can greatly increase or decrease an individual’s IMT score at any age.

The following lifestyle factors can lead to younger individuals having higher (unhealthier) scores:

  • Smoking and/or drinking alcohol
  • Maintaining a high body-fat percentage
  • Low consumption of fiber
  • Maintaining a low fitness level

On the contrary, healthy lifestyle choices such as increasing fiber intake and maintaining cardiovascular fitness have been found to limit the age-related progression of arterial plaque scores. In fact, an ongoing study of over 700 participants found that highly-fit individuals who consumed 30 grams of fiber daily experienced no elevated scores. Interestingly enough, IMT scores can be decreased (lowering “heart age”) through a combination of nutrition and lifestyle adjustments. Decreasing your “heart age” can aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, and consequently a heart attack or stroke.

Simple tips for reducing your “heart age” include:

  • Increase daily fiber consumption by including more vegetables, fruits and whole grains in the diet
  • Improve cardiovascular fitness by focusing on training programs designed towards maintaining an elevated heart rate for longer periods of time
  • Consume foods rich in heart-healthy nutrients such as fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids), zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin K
  • Increase your ratio of fat-free mass to fat mass through a combination of increased exercise/physical activity and a well-rounded diet that facilitates optimal weight management

In summary, if you are wondering what your client’s real “heart age” might be and do not have access to IMT data like most trainers, make sure to analyze the above for potential factors that cause unhealthier scores. Providing appropriate education can potentially decrease average plaque thickness and aid in preventing heart disease among your clients; the cause of approximately 1 in 4 deaths in the United States each year (600,000 per year).

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