How Old Is Your Heart? Heart Risk Assessment from Texas Health Resources
Is Your Heart Older Than You Are?
Photo by Elizabeth Cecil
It's a concept that could change your life. People who calculated their heart age—using a short, clinically accurate quiz (take it at heartage.me)—were found in a 2014 study to have more success sticking with healthy life changes than those who were given a plain old risk score. And who can blame 'em for being motivated by the promise of youth anew?
The following women accomplished just that. Choose the story that resonates most, then follow that woman's custom plan. Or hey, go with all three. If you keep it up, you might just find yourself young at heart again, too.
Cindy Parsons's Heart Age:46
8 Months Before:59
Her accomplishment:She beat her bad genes.
Photo by Elizabeth Cecil
Cindy Parsons, 57, will never forget the day she was working in her family's dress shop and her mother complained of not feeling well. Minutes later, paramedics were wheeling Parsons's mom out on a stretcher—she was having a heart attack at age 45. She lived, but her health and energy were never the same. Because her maternal grandmother also had a heart condition, Parsons knew that she might be genetically programmed for the same fate, and the possibility was always in the back of her mind. As she crested 50 and started gaining weight, her worry grew.
Parsons's concern eventually motivated her—and her daughter—to join a local heart-health program called Follow the Fifty, in which she learned how to address her seemingly unassailable genetics. She began walking regularly at lunch and after work. She swapped sweets and starchy carbs for veggies and lean proteins. And within 8 months, she dropped 77 pounds and her systolic blood pressure fell 20 points. Now she feels so good, she's optimistic about living into her 90s.
Follow Parsons's Gene-Reversing Plan:
Be an investigative reporter. Determine if any of your immediate or extended family members have a history of coronary heart disease (heart attack, heart surgery, etc.). The more who do, the higher your risk.
Know you have less wiggle room. If you have a strong family history, it's more important to make like Parsons and adopt a healthy diet, exercise 150 minutes or more each week, reduce stress, and sleep 7 to 8 hours nightly. "Be extra careful—the deck is already stacked against you," says Tara Narula, an American Heart Association spokesperson.
Go safe-over-sorry with the meds. "In addition to leading a healthy lifestyle, taking a statin can further reduce your risk, even if your LDL ["bad"] cholesterol levels aren't elevated," says Daniel Rader, MD, chair of the University of Pennsylvania's department of genetics. "It's the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of a heart attack."
Be aggressive with screening. Talk with your doctor about advanced imaging tests such as coronary artery calcium scoring, the carotid intimal medial thickness (CIMT) test, and EndoPAT endothelial function testing. These provide a more accurate snapshot of arterial health.
Keep good company. Parsons attributes her success to group fitness and support (and the positive effects of a group setting have been confirmed by research as well). Check with your doctor or local hospital to see what's available in your area.
MORE:Get A Healthier Heart In Just 30 Days
Rhonda Hall's Heart Age:48
24 Months Before:72
Her accomplishment:She got control of her weight.
Photo by Elizabeth Cecil
Rhonda Hall was everyone's go-to restaurant expert. She knew where to find the best pizza and steaks in town. A typical dinner out consisted of four courses, and she always cleaned her plate. This love of food, coupled with a thyroid problem, caused Hall, who's now 44, to gain 60 pounds in her 30s. Soon she had a slew of bad diagnoses: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea—a perfect storm for heart disease.
Hall tried Slim-Fast, Master Cleanse, and Weight Watchers, but nothing worked. To make things harder, black women naturally burn fewer calories than white women—in one study comparing the two, white subjects lost nearly 8 pounds more on the same plan.
The turning point for Hall was meeting a woman who had lost her sight as a result of diabetes complications. "That's when I realized I was killing myself," she says. This time she opted for group weight loss programs instead of going it alone. In about 2 years, she lost 100 pounds, and she's now off insulin. She also halved the dosages of her other meds. Now friends call her for healthy eating advice. "And when I do eat out," she says, "I always bring home a doggy bag."
Follow Hall's Weight-Busting Plan:
Compete. What ultimately made the difference for Hall was entering two Biggest Loser-style competitions, one at the elementary school where she works and the other at her church. She used the friendly competition for motivation—and won the church event.
Try SMAs. In shared medical appointments, the participants attend 90-minute meetings with healthcare providers and other patients with the same medical condition. This secures more time with busy experts, lowers costs, and provides valuable support. Research shows that SMAs can help with weight loss.
Preach what you're trying to practice. By volunteering with the AHA's Go Red for Women campaign to educate others about heart disease, Hall became better informed, too, which prompted her to be a better role model. (On top of that, devoting 2 to 3 hours weekly to helping others lowers heart-disease risk factors such as depression and high blood pressure.)
Use roughage strategically. If you have a sluggish metabolism, as Hall does, it's even more important to eat fiber-rich foods. These keep you feeling fuller longer, says Katherine Patton, a nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic's Heart and Vascular Institute.
Check with your doc after every drop. Hall was once on four insulin shots daily to control diabetes—now she doesn't require any (and she has greatly reduced all her meds). But never do this on your own. Get reevaluated by your doctor every 3 months while you're losing weight.
Malissa Hohmann's Heart Age:32
13 Months Before:46
Her accomplishment:She turned her back on stress.
Photo by Maddie McGarvey
As an internal auditor, 57-year-old Malissa Hohmann works 10-hour days policing her colleagues. "No one wants an auditor around," she admits. "I'm not there to be anyone's best friend."
She handled her stress at the company cafeteria. Finding solace in comfort food eventually led her to gain 50 pounds and develop prediabetes. Because both of her parents had diabetes, the diagnosis made her even more anxious. She began having headaches, muscle soreness, and palpitations.
"Stress floods the body with cortisol and epinephrine," says the AHA's Narula. These hormones normally help us react in emergencies, "but when they sit in the bloodstream while we worry over a work problem, they can raise blood pressure, inflame blood vessels, and cause plaque to rupture [possibly prompting a heart attack]," she says.
With her health deteriorating and stress rising, Hohmann joined the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease at the Charleston Area Medical Center. The program has been shown to improve heart health and may also help lower diabetes risk with plant-based eating, relaxation techniques, and group support. In a little over a year, Hohmann lost 53 pounds, and she's no longer prediabetic. Plus, she learned how to shrug off stress. "You know how people want to look 10 years younger on the outside? Well, this program helped me feel 10 years younger on the inside," she says. "I'm more peaceful and relaxed."
Follow Hohmann's Stress-Reducing Plan:
Audit your breath. It helps to regularly take time, sit quietly, and focus on your breath. Is it rapid and shallow? That's a sign of anxiety and stress. Or is it slow, regular, and deep? That's a sign you're relaxed. Notice the pattern of your thoughts, too. Are they jumbled or focused, positive or negative? Becoming aware of when you're in a stressed state is the first step toward alleviating it.
Imagine yourself calm. Hohmann relaxes by mentally repeating the word peace during meditation. "If you tell yourself that you're stressed and unhealthy, that's how you'll end up," says stress-management specialist Denise Chiartas, who advised Hohmann. "But when you practice meditating on a positive word or phrase, your body and mind will respond." Imagine your heart beating strong and slow, your arteries open and vibrant. Try these 5 easy techniques to calm down fast.
Walk around the cafeteria, not into it. One key way Hohmann cut 600 calories every day was by strolling around her office rather than beelining to the cafeteria. A little physical activity is all it takes to quell hunger and stress during the workday.
Enjoy your comfort foods. Now Hohmann indulges much less frequently in sugary foods—and savors them when she does. "When you slow down and eat mindfully, you enjoy food more and eat smaller portions," says Chiartas. Be present in the moment, and feel grateful for the chance to indulge rather than guilty for doing so.
Find your "relax" button. The more soothing strategies you know, the more you'll have to fall back on. Hohmann explored meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, breathing exercises, and more, cherry-picking the techniques she found useful. Depending on the situation, she might listen to a stress management CD from Dean Ornish, recite her peace mantra, or do 30 minutes of Wii yoga. "Now mind practice is my comfort food," she says.
Video: Your Heart Could Be 10 Years Older Than You | This Morning
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