Unless you have a diagnosed heart problem, you probably have no idea what condition your ticker is in - but the majority of us are walking around with a heart which is effectively older than we are.
In fact, 80 percent of us are at risk of conditions such as heart attack or stroke, and a heart attack happens every three minutes in the UK. Fortunately, there is plenty we can do to listen to our hearts and improve their condition.
Since the 1980's, when measures such as the Framingham Risk Score were used to calculate a patient's risk of suffering from a heart condition, there have been relatively simple ways to work out our risk factor. Currently accepted systems include QRISK3, developed by ClinRisk LTD using data from the NHS, and JBS3, a heart risk app available through iTunes and Google Play, which is ideal for practitioners wanting to demonstrate the benefits of interventions to reduce the risk of heart disease.
The easiest system for most of us to use is the NHS's own Heart Age tool, which asks 16 simple questions such as your age, height, weight, sex, ethnic group and smoking history, and quickly calculates the 'age' of your heart compared to your actual age.
See Also: Your Healthy Heart
Shockingly, Public Health England's findings following analysis of results from its own Heart Age test was that one in 10 men aged 50 has a heart age of 60.
PHE says the 7,400 people in the UK die from heart disease or stroke every month, and people under 75 account for a quarter of these deaths, most of which can be prevented. The issue affects women nearly as much as men; more than 900,000 women in the UK are living with heart disease and it kills nearly three times more women than breast cancer.
So, what can we do to improve our heart health and lower our heart age?
Some factors, such as age and gender, we can do nothing about - nor can we change having a family history of cardiovascular disease. There are also some hidden factors that don't cause any visible symptoms but can increase risk, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol levels or blood glucose (diabetes). For this reason, the online heart age test is more accurate if you know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
But some factors contributing to a raised heart age are very much under our control - the main ones are smoking, alcohol, diet and exercise. The good news is that it is never too late to do something about all of these.
See Also: Help Your Heart
Your first step should be to 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 area, in local libraries or mobile units in shopping centres. Over 75's can have an annual check-up. Under 40's are generally 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 with an inexpensive monitor, but it is essential to have a discussion with a health professional too.
If your heart age turns out to be higher than your real age, try to balance it out with these basic steps.
See Also: Eat For Your Heart's Sake
At least a third of all cardo-vascular disease is attributable to smoking. Smoking damages the lining of all arteries, leading to fatty build-up. Quitting can be hard - every year nearly half of all smokers in the UK try to stop, but only two to three percent succeed. Your best move is to accept all the help you can get, from psychological support to nicotine replacement therapy and prescribed drugs to reduce cravings.
Just one year after giving up smoking, your heart-attack risk will be halved.
Reduce Your Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is a measure of the pressure in the heart when it pumps blood around the body, over the reduced pressure when the heart is resting. Your blood pressure will inevitably rise as you get older, fatter and less active, drink more alcohol and eat more salt, but there may be no visible symptoms, even though high blood pressure an cause long-term tissue and organ damage.
Even slim, active people can have high blood pressure and can benefit from medication. The ideal blood pressure measurement lies between 90/60 and 120/80, and it's considered to be high if consistently measuring above 140/90.
A basic battery-operated blood pressure meter costs about £20 and takes only a few minutes to check your blood pressure using a pressurised sleeve place around the forearm.
In many cases, blood pressure can be regulated by making lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight, lowering salt and alcohol intake, managing stress and keeping active.
It takes only two and a half hours a week of moderate physical activity to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by a third. Any activity is better than none and even a brisk walk is valuable, but to really make a difference, exercise needs to warm you up and increase your breathing and heart rate.
You don't have to join a gym and become an exercise fanatic - try something free and simple like joining a local park running group.
A recent study concluded that going from no exercise to recommended activity levels over six years in middle age may reduce the risk of heart failure by 23 percent.
Balance Your Cholesterol
Cholesterol, a fatty substance found in meat and dairy products and made in the liver, comes in two types; low-density lipoprotein, 'bad cholesterol' which can clog up your arteries and high density lipoprotein (LDL), 'good cholesterol' which is protective. Your total cholesterol levels should be under 5mmol/l, and LDL under 3mmol/l.
A home cholesterol testing kit can be bought for around £25, but for really accurate interpretation of the results you may need to go for a full medical check-up.
If your overall levels are high you will be given advice on improving your diet and getting more exercise and may be offered medication such as statins.
Try to cut down on fried food, pastries, processed meat products such as sausages, cream and cheese, all of which contain saturated fats.
Manage your weight
Being overweight makes your heart work harder and reducing weight can lower blood pressure and reduce bad cholesterol.
Your waist measurement is a good rough guide to appropriate weight; women’s waists should be below 80cm (32 inches) and men should aim for a waist measurement of less than 94cm (37 inches). For people from a South Asian background, who are at higher risk, this is 80cm (32 inches) for women and 90cm (35 inches) for men.
So, some causes of heart disease we can do nothing about, but others are entirely under our control—pay attention to your heart health and your whole body will thank you for it.