Four out of five adults have hearts that are more damaged than they should be for their age, putting them at greater risk of early death, a major study has shown.
The disclosure prompted calls for Britons to ditch their unhealthy lifestyles and monitor their own health more closely in order to reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Leading doctors said the number of people with a heart “older” than their actual age was “really alarming” and should spur people to quit smoking, eat better and exercise more. The revelation reflects in part Britain’s high levels of obesity and physical inactivity and previously high smoking rate.
Almost four-fifths (78%) of more than 1.9 million people in England who have taken Public Health England’s new online “heart age test” were found to have a heart that was older than their chronological age.
A third (34%) of those who answered the 16-question survey turned out to have a heart age that was at least five years above their actual age, while for one in seven (14%), it was at least 10 years higher.
The government’s public health agency warned that anyone with a heart age older than their real age was at risk of “an early grave or ending up very disabled in later life”. It wants everyone over the age of 30 to take the test and, if necessary, take urgent action to reduce their risk.
“These are really alarming figures that will cause great anxiety for many,” said Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners. “But rather than people panicking, we hope this well-intentioned initiative by Public Health England will serve as a wake-up call for us all to be more aware of our general health and prompt changes that will help us to live longer and healthier lives.”
Prof Jamie Waterall, PHE’s national lead for cardiovascular disease, said: “It’s worrying that so many people are at risk of dying unnecessarily from heart attack and stroke. [But] I was unsurprised … given that we have a population that’s becoming more obese and we have major problems with things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, alcohol and physical inactivity.
“We need the public to understand the impact that all that’s having on their risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Clearly, many people need to make major changes to their lifestyles.” Up to 50 lives a day in England could be saved if people adopted healthier behaviours, because 80% of heart attacks and strokes are preventable, he stressed.
People also need to take much greater individual responsibility for monitoring their own health, especially their blood pressure and cholesterol levels - both key markers of overall health - experts said. That could include visiting a pharmacy, seeing a nurse or doctor at their GP surgery, or taking the NHS Health Check for adults in England aged 40 to 74.
However, Waterall urged people who receive bad news about their heart as a result of taking the new test to use it as a prompt to make changes that many have probably previously considered but not implemented.
“The shock of having a heart attack is pretty devastating. When I worked as a nurse on a coronary care unit, most people who had a heart attack wanted to turn back time and to have lived healthier lives. For example, often people talked about wanting to stop smoking but hadn’t got round to it, so the inevitable had happened.
“It’s never too late - or too early - to make changes. The number one thing to do is quit smoking, if you are a smoker. But taking more exercise, moderating your alcohol intake, losing weight and taking control of your blood pressure and cholesterol will all help,” he said.
Overall men’s hearts are more fragile than women’s, relative to their age, analysis of the 1.9m test results found. Among women, 19% of those in their 60s, and 33% of those in their 70s had a heart at least 10 years older than their actual age. However, among men in the same age groups, the proportions were much higher: 31% and 42% respectively.
Ashleigh Doggett, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Millions of people in the UK are unknowingly living at high risk of a heart attack or stroke due to their lifestyle, their family history of heart disease, or undiagnosed conditions including high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Simple lifestyle changes such as increasing physical exercise, eating a healthy Mediterranean diet and cutting back on alcohol can all help reduce your heart age. If people are concerned about their heart age, they should speak to their GP.”
The 16 questions solicit information about the person’s age, weight, lifestyle and history of conditions that can weaken the heart, such as diabetes. “The test is designed to prompt people who may look outwardly healthy to think about the health of their inner organs as well,” PHE said.
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