Seven ways ... to lower your heart age



How you can lower your risk of heart attack or stroke, at any age

Work out your heart age

You may look and feel young, but is your heart letting you down? Heart age is a concept that captures your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. There are factors that you can’t change or control: getting older, being male (until 55 – then women start to catch up) and having a family history of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Then there are the factors within your control: smoking, exercise, diet and alcohol. There are also hidden factors that don’t cause symptoms but increase risk, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood glucose (diabetes). You can calculate your heart age using a simple online tool, but it’s more accurate if you know your cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

**Get a health check **

Every 40- to 74-year-old in England is entitled to a health check every five years at a GP surgery, pharmacy or, in some areas, in local libraries or mobile units in shopping centres. Over-75s can have an annual checkup. Under-40s are generally at low risk but should see their GP if a close family member has had a heart attack or stroke at a young age (under 55 for a male relative, under 65 for a female). You can buy a DIY cholesterol-testing kit and measure your blood pressure at home, but it can be useful to have a discussion with a health professional, too.

Quit smoking

At least one-third of all CVD is attributable to five risk factors: cigarettes, high blood pressure, alcohol, high cholesterol and obesity – in that order of importance. Other factors are inactivity and a poor diet with not much fruit and veg. So, start with quitting smoking; it will be hard, yes – nicotine is more addictive than heroin – but, if you value your health, it’s the most worthwhile thing to do. Every year, nearly half of all smokers in the UK try to stop, but only 2-3% succeed. Best to take all the help you can get; the evidence is that you’re more likely to succeed if you get psychological support, nicotine-replacement therapy and prescribed drugs to reduce cravings.

Get your blood pressure down

An ideal blood pressure (BP) lies between 90/60 and 120/80 and is considered to be high if consistently above 140/90. It’s a measure of the pressure in the heart when it pumps out blood round the body over the pressure when the heart is resting. BP rises as you get older, fatter, less active, drink more alcohol and eat more salt. You may have an inherited tendency to high BP so even if you are slim, teetotal, active and eat a great diet, you may be advised to take medication to keep your BP in the healthy range

Do enough exercise to stop you talking

Two and a half hours a week of moderate physical activity lowers your risk of CVD by a third. To count as moderate activity, you need to feel yourself getting warmer and your heart and breathing rate increase. Vigorous activity, like a fast run or high-intensity interval training, means you can’t really talk without pausing for breath. Any activity is better than none and vigorous activity is probably better than more leisurely exercise. Parkruns are free, weekly, 5K runs that take place in 490 parks throughout the UK. There is no downside to training up and joining in one of these joyful community events.

Get the good cholesterol up, and the bad down

Cholesterol is a fat found in food (eg meat and dairy products) and made in the liver. Total cholesterol circulating in the blood is made up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which clogs up arteries, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is protective. Ideally, total cholesterol should be under 5mmol/l and LDL under 3mmol/l. But to interpret your cholesterol levels, you need to factor in any other risk factors to get an overall risk score. If it is high, you will be advised to exercise more and eat a low-cholesterol diet. If that doesn’t work, you may be offered medication such as statins.

Don’t take heart age too seriously; it’s just a guide

My heart age is apparently eight years older than my actual age; I ticked all the right boxes, but my dad had a heart attack at a young age. This despite the fact that his lifestyle was very different to mine; he smoked and never knowingly did any exercise. So, while the advice on heart-age-test sites is generally good, don’t get too hung up on the figures; they are risk scores and don’t necessarily predict what will happen to you. At least I hope not.