Most Americans' Hearts are Older than Their Age

Your heart may be older than you are – and that’s not good. According to a new CDC report, three out of four U.S. adults have a predicted heart age that is older than their actual age. This means they are at higher risk for heart attacks and stroke.


“Heart age” is the calculated age of a person’s cardiovascular system based on his or her risk factor profile. The risks include high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes status, and body mass index as an indicator for obesity.


This is the first study to provide population-level estimates of heart age and to highlight disparities in heart age nationwide. The report shows that heart age varies by race/ethnicity, gender, region, and other sociodemographic characteristics.


“Because so many U.S. adults don’t understand their cardiovascular disease risk, they are missing out on early opportunities to prevent future heart attacks or strokes,” said Barbara A. Bowman, Ph.D., director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. “About three in four heart attacks and strokes are due to risk factors that increase heart age, so it’s important to continue focusing on efforts to improve heart health and increase access to early and affordable detection and treatment resources nationwide.”


CDC researchers used risk factor data collected from every U.S. state and information from the Framingham Heart Study to determine that nearly 69 million adults between the ages of 30 and 74 have a heart age older than their actual age. That’s about the number of people living in the 130 largest U.S. cities combined.


“Too many U.S. adults have a heart age years older than their real age, increasing their risk of heart disease and stroke,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Everybody deserves to be young – or at least not old – at heart.”


Key findings in the report include:


  • Overall, the average heart age for adult men is eight years older than their chronological age, compared to five years older for women.
  • Although heart age exceeds chronological age for all race/ethnic groups, it is highest among African-American men and women (average of 11 years older for both).
  • Among both U.S. men and women, excess heart age increases with age and decreases with greater education and household income.
  • There are geographic differences in average heart age across states. Adults in the Southern U.S. typically have higher heart ages. For example, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama have the highest percentage of adults with a heart age five years or more over their actual age, while Utah, Colorado, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have the lowest percentage.


The heart age concept was created to more effectively communicate a person’s risk of dying from heart attack or stroke – and to show what can be done to lower that risk. Despite the serious national problem of higher heart age, the report’s findings can be used on both an individual and population level to boost heart health, particularly among groups that are most at risk of poor cardiovascular outcomes.


So what exactly is heart age? It's the age of a person's heart and blood vessels based on their personal risk of cardiovascular disease and it's important because it gives a stark, simple picture of a person’s future risk of having or dying from a heart attack or a stroke. Take, for example, a 53-year-old woman who finds out that her heart age is 22 years older than her chronological age, 75, and that's because she smokes and has uncontrolled high blood pressure. Or, a 45-year-old man who finds out that his heart is 30 years older than he is, despite the fact that his weight is healthy, because he has untreated high blood pressure, smokes, and has diabetes.


Healthcare providers can use cardiovascular risk assessment calculators to inform treatment decisions and work with patients on healthy habits. In the case of the 53-year-old woman, her doctor could talk with her about finding a quit-smoking program that is right for her and about life-style changes and medications that would put her in charge of her blood pressure.


U.S. adults can learn their own heart age and how to improve it. This could include quitting smoking or lowering blood pressure through eating a healthier diet, taking appropriate medication, or exercising more. State and local health departments can help by promoting healthier living spaces, such as tobacco-free areas, more access to healthy food options, and safe walking paths.


“As a science-based organization, we look at the facts and there's a very interesting study done by some outside researchers lead by Dr. Lopez Gonzalez and what that study found is that they randomized 3,000 people into groups of 1,000 each. One group got routine medical advice, what a doctor tells you, you should do. The second group got a risk calculation, a risk score. It tells you what the risk of a heart attack is in the next ten years. The third group got the heart age and one year later, people who had learned their heart age had gained 2 1/2 more years of healthy heart life than the group with routine medical advice and more than a year more than the group with the risk calculation. So this is a way of communicating a fact that is a life and death fact for many people,” stated CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.


See the CDC Press Release


Also see the CDC’s Vital Signs Report:


Also see the CDC’s Press Briefing Transcript


See also Medical Law Perspectives, February 2015 Report: Mending a Broken Heart: Malpractice Risks in Diagnosing and Treating Heart Disease


See also Medical Law Perspectives, February 2014 Report: Congenital Heart Conditions: How Infants, Adults, and Healthcare Providers Handle the Risks


See also Medical Law Perspectives, November 2013 Report: Diagnosis and Treatment of Heart Attacks: Liability Issues