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Heart and Vascular Health

How's your heart aging? Know the score.
06/04/2009

So, you're 45 now, and fries and a cheeseburger, several beers and smoking aren't part of your routine fare. Does a healthy lifestyle mean your heart disease risk is not on the rise? Does it even mean your heart is as efficient as it was at 20? Unfortunately, the answer on both counts is "no."

Typically, once you've reached your mid-40s, your heart shrinks by about .3 grams each year and loses its ability to pump blood through your body by up to 5 percent. That's why a lot of sports competitions have "best in age group" categories.

You may not be able to regain the performance of a 20-year old, but there are steps you can take to make the most of your current age. Doing so can be life-extending if your heart is actually much older health-wise than your chronological age. How can you tell if that's the case?

One indicator of your heart's age is where you stand on major risk factors for cardiac disease such as family history, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking (which can add 20 years to your heart's age). Diabetics have the same risk of having a heart attack within five years as someone who has already survived a heart attack.

If you're a man over 40, or a woman over 45, and have one or more of these risk factors, it's recommended you have an Ultra Fast Heart Scan (UFHS) to directly measure how your heart is aging. The UFHS is not the procedure of choice, however, for people with chest pain.

The presence of calcium indicates damage to the arteries brought about by plaque, a major cause of heart disease. However, 85 percent of heart attacks are caused by artery blockage not significant enough to be detected on stress tests. The high speed of UFHS allows it to virtually "freeze" the moving heart for a precise image. As a result, it can tell you at an early stage how much calcium has accumulated in your arteries.

The UFHS is painless and only takes about 15 minutes. And, because it requires fewer images, this type of screening involves significantly less radiation exposure (about that of two chest x-rays) than some diagnostic tests, such as CT angiography that uses a contrast medium.

After the UFHS, you'll be given a calcium score, which tells you how rapidly you're developing plaque. This number reflects how your heart is "aging." You also should receive counsel on how lifestyle changes, and possibly medication, can lower your score if it's not where it should be.

When you schedule your scan be sure to ask the healthcare provider whether other screening services are included with the test, such as a lipid profile, glucose measurement, blood pressure check or a cardiac risk assessment. The more thorough the screening package, the sooner you and your doctor can develop a plan of action based on your results.

Stanley Clark, MD, cardiologist with Midwest Heart Specialists, contributed to this article.




 

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