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COURTESY: OHSU - Sergio Fazio, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at OHSU.The Internet has been buzzing with news that, according to federal health officials, three out of four American adults have a heart that’s “older” than their years.


An article at HealthDay.com states that the average adult man has a heart age eight years older than his actual age; the average woman’s blood-pumping organ is five years older.

These findings have drawn reaction from local doctors. Dr. Sergio Fazio, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at Oregon Health & Science University, takes issue with the story. He believes the arteries, not the heart, can get older than the patient.

“A heart pumps. The heart has chambers. The heart has valves and the heart has muscle,” Fazio said.

“When people die of a heart attack, say at 62, they obviously have not lasted as long as they should have,” he said. “But it’s not because the heart was older, it’s because the arteries are older and form plaque. So it’s not heart age, it’s arterial age. That is really what makes the difference.”

Describing the circulatory system, Fazio said arteries need to be open and ready to give blood everywhere. When they clog, a portion of the heart muscle may not get blood.

“It has nothing to do with the age of the heart,” he said. “The heart, five minutes before going bad, was good. It’s the arteries that are not right.”

Plaque in the arteries can happen with age,” Fazio said. “We know this becomes a huge problem around age 70 and beyond.”

If you’re born with a normal heart, Fazio said, your heart is going to stay normal unless you get an infection, a tumor, get in an accident or have a problem with circulation in the coronary arteries.

Vascular age can be affected by factors, including inactivity, smoking, hypertension, bad dietary habits, obesity and diabetes. Genetics can be a risk factor and family history of heart disease is an important consideration.

“Of course you can be born with unfortunate conditions,” Fazio added. “Some people are born with cholesterol so high that they can get a heart attack when they’re 15.”

Dr. Tim Jacobson, assistant chief of cardiology with Kaiser Permanente, sees the concept of heart age as inspirational.

“In pointing out that most people have a heart age older than their stated age, what they’re trying to tell people is, ‘look, there’s a lot that most of us can do to reduce our risk of adverse cardiovascular events down the road,’” Jacobson said.

If you’re concerned about your heart age, it never hurts to have regular checkups with your doctor, but activity is important.

“A lot of studies show there are two main segments of the population. Those who are avid exercisers and those who are quite sedentary,” Jacobson said. “You get 80 percent of the benefit of exercise in going from someone who does nothing to someone who does something. That’s something I spend a lot of time making sure my patients understand.”

Jacobson said some people believe the only way to get effective exercise is to go to the gym five days a week.

“I think that’s really unrealistic with work schedules most people have,” Jacobson said. “The real key is simply to add exercise into various points in your day, when you might not have otherwise done it before.”

Jacobson suggests, if you take public transportation, take that extra walk to the MAX station and back. “Simply getting at least 30 minutes of walking in in per day gets you the vast majority of the benefits of exercise,” he said.

There is a website Jacobson discovered that can be of help: heartage.me.

“It looks like a very useful way for people to get a gauge of what their risk is,” Jacobson said, adding we have an enormous impact on our own cardiovascular health. “If we are really treating ourselves optimally, we can reduce our cardiovascular risk by two thirds or more.”

Concerning heart health, Fazio added, “You need to take care of the ticker.”

STEPS FOR HEART HEALTH

Visit the American Heart Association and learn about a heart-healthy diet.

  • If you want an afternoon snack, try almonds (around 10 nuts on most days).
  • Don’t abuse cheese, milk, dairy and sweets.
  • Make sure you include fish (salmon is good) in your diet.
  • Drink water or non-caloric drinks.
  • 150 minutes a week of an activity that raises your heart rate.
  • Don’t Smoke
  • Keep your weight within limits

  • Scott Keith is a freelance writer for the Portland Tribune and the Pamplin Media Group. If you have a health tip, or a story idea, contact Scott at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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