In research presented at a recent meeting of the American Heart Association in Los Angeles, Danish scientists presented their findings from a 35-year study that sought to determine whether visible signs of aging were a better predictor of heart disease risk than the presence of physical symptoms that could only be detected with scientific tests. When asked to explain why she and her fellow scientists were examining these things, senior study author Anne-Tybjaerg-Hansen said, “The visible signs of aging reflect physiologic or biological age, not chronological age, and are independent of chronological age.” The scientists’ working hypothesis was that indications of premature aging might reveal more about a patient’s heart risk than had previously been assumed.
In the study, the researchers examined of 10,885 subjects (all over 40 years old at the start of the study, and 45% female) for visible signs of aging, and found that 7,537 of them had receding hairlines (frontoparietal baldness), 3,938 of them had crown top baldness, 3,405 of them had fatty buildups that created “earlobe creases,” and 678 had fatty deposits around their eyes. As if these visible signs of aging weren’t bad enough in themselves, over the 35-year duration of the study 3,401 of these visibly-aging subjects developed heart disease, and 1,708 of them had heart attacks.
The study’s findings suggested that both individually and combined, these signs of aging predicted heart disease as accurately as traditional risk factors such as age, sex, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and a family history of heart disease. A buildup of fatty deposits around the eyes was seen as the strongest individual predictor, leading to a 35% increased risk of heart attack in both men and women. Men with a receding hairline had a 40% higher risk.
But the strongest overall predictor was a combination of several of these signs of aging. The more of them a person had, the higher their risk of heart disease. And this risk increased with age; subjects over 70 who displayed three or four of the aging signs had a 40% chance of contracting heart disease over the next 10 years.
To balance these findings somewhat, the researchers found that other signs of aging – such as wrinkles and gray hair – had no significant link to increased heart risk.
It is important to put this research into perspective. First, the research was presented at a medical conference and have not yet been submitted to the peer review process required before a study is submitted for publication. Second, the researchers themselves point out that their findings do not constitute a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between these signs of aging and heart disease. They merely point out that “looking old for your age is a marker of poor [heart] health,” and that doctors should take a patient’s physical appearance into consideration when examining them. As one reviewer of the study, a cardiac specialist herself, put it, “Sometimes, doctors are so busy putting the blood pressure cuff on, and so on, that we forget to step back and take in the patient’s overall appearance. When I do, I notice that people having heart surgery look old for their age.”
In other words, if you look old, your heart may feel old. So looking for the signs of premature aging could become a valuable addition to every doctor’s bag of diagnostic tools. As professor Anne-Tybjaerg-Hansen puts it, “Checking these visible ageing signs should be a routine part of every doctor’s physical examination.
Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.