Heart attacks, strokes and a long list of other artery-related afflictions top the list of health risks for the 50-and-over population — and a rising number of those even younger. So figuring how old you really are is an increasingly big deal. If your history includes cigarettes and fast food in abundance you might not want to know. But your arteries hold important information.
Several tools are available that enable doctors and patients to calculate vascular age. These suggest there can be a substantial difference between how old you are and how old your blood vessels are. For instance, the vascular age of a 35-year-old man who smokes and has diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol could be as high as 76 years old—more than double his chronological age, according to a recent study. The arteries of a 30-year-old woman with similar risk factors could be equivalent to those of an average woman who is more than 80 years old.
Such a calculation “gives a sense that your risk-factor burden is making you age faster than you think you are,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, a preventive cardiologist at Northwestern University, Chicago, who co-authored the recent study, which appeared in the journal Circulation last August. “The more you can make it concrete, the better you can impart information about risk.”
The good news, doctors say, is that by taking steps to reduce risk factors and the damage they inflict on arteries, it is possible to turn back the clock on vascular age.
Some of us — long-time smokers, members of a family with genetic problems that can’t be overcome — might not be able to access the good news. But many can, and for them, a few changes in lifestyle, or manageable medications, can make a lifetime of difference.
- A 42-year-old man who smokes and has total cholesterol of 180, good cholesterol (HDL) of 45 and systolic blood pressure of 125, has a vascular age of a 54-year-old. If he quits smoking, his vascular age could drop to 42, the same as his chronological age.
- A 52-year-old nonsmoking woman, who has total cholesterol of 220, HDL of 44 and systolic blood pressure of 135, has a vascular age of a 68-year-old. If the woman reduces her cholesterol below 200, her vascular age could drop to 59 years old.
If you’re feeling your age today, maybe your arteries are trying to tell you something.