Maintaining heart-healthy habits may slow biological aging by six years, according to a new study.
Growing evidence demonstrates that cardiovascular health is closely connected to the function of all your bodily systems—including how your cells age.
New research, presented earlier this month at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2023 showcased how heart health affects biological aging.
Researchers found that better cardiovascular health is associated with a slower pace of biological aging. Having good cardiovascular health may also increase longevity and decrease the risk of developing heart problems and other diseases that often come with age.
“It was compelling that we observed a dose-response relationship meaning that as heart health improves, biological aging slows down,” Nour Makarem, PhD, senior study author and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Health.
Using Life’s Essential 8 checklist, the research team looked at the relationship between heart health and brain health. This checklist includes:
- Eat better
- Be more active
- Quit tobacco
- Get healthy sleep
- Manage weight
- Control cholesterol
- Manage blood sugar
- Manage blood pressure
Results showed people who had the highest “score” from the checklist had a biological age on average six years younger than their chronological age.
People with high cardiovascular health had an average chronological age of 41; their average biological age was 36. Participants with poor cardiovascular health had an average chronological age of 53; their average biological age was 57.
“Therefore, even gradual improvements in lifestyle behaviors (diet, sleep, physical activity, and nicotine use) can be beneficial, any progress towards improving heart health is meaningful,” said Makarem.
Here’s what biological age can tell you about someone’s overall health, how aging is connected to cardiovascular health, and tips for adopting heart-healthy habits.
A person’s biological age is an indicator of what’s happening inside the body on a cellular level.
“Biological age, or phenotypic age, refers to how old your cells are relative to your chronological age, which is how long you have been alive,” Carly Goldstein, PhD, assistant professor at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a research scientist at The Miriam Hospital told Health.
Goldstein explained that scientists use blood tests to get a sense of where the biomarkers that impact biological aging line up.
“Biomarkers are like little signals that paint a picture of your health through factors like inflammation and organ function,” she said. “Together, these biomarkers illustrate the body’s aging process and the likelihood of getting sick or dying.”
Chronological and biological age align for some individuals more than others.
Those who are aging faster, which may occur when people have more chronic illnesses or live in very high-stress environments, will have a greater mismatch from their chronological age, Goldstein explained.
On the other hand, those who take excellent care of themselves may even slow the aging process.
“Cardiovascular disease and aging share common risk factors and underlying mechanisms,” Makarem told Health.
The new research emphasizes that certain risk factors that lead to heart disease can also accelerate the body’s aging process, she explained.
And while poor heart health can have a negative impact on aging, maintaining good heart health has a positive ripple effect.
“Taking care of your heart health means that you’re taking care of your overall health and giving yourself the best chance of a long, healthy, happy life,” Goldstein said. “Cardiovascular health keeps your body’s cells and systems working as well as possible for as long as possible.”
The factors that are associated with heart health seemingly also slow biological age.
“People who take care of their risk factors, such as hypertension and lipidemia, and get good sleep and exercise, and eat a good diet, and watch their weight, age much slower,” Harlan Krumholz, MD, professor of medicine (cardiology) at Yale School of Medicine told Health.
He explained that life expectancy is longer and overall function is higher when these biomarkers are upheld. This contributes to a slower aging process.
Ultimately, cardiovascular health is directly tied to morbidity and mortality.
“Cardiovascular disease and metabolic health can affect vascular and organ function including the heart, brain, and kidneys in several ways, and thus, cardiovascular disease is still a primary cause of morbidity and mortality,” Ashish Sarraju, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health.
“Controlling cardiovascular risk factors is fundamental to promoting healthy lives,” he said.
Making healthy lifestyle changes to improve your cardiovascular health is beneficial, regardless of your age.
“Starting today is better than starting tomorrow or not starting at all,” Goldstein said. “Most people find that making small health changes can make a big impact, and making a change in one area can positively affect another area of your life.”
For example, getting more sleep may lead to more energy to exercise, better blood pressure, and you might crave high salt or sugar foods less often, Goldstein suggested.
Your behavior can have an even bigger effect on your heart health than your genetics.
“Become more active. Eat a healthy diet. Get good sleep. Try to reduce stress,” Krumholz recommended. “It seems that whenever you start these habits, you’re helping yourself.”
Sarraju suggests sitting down with a trusted healthcare professional to discuss the best ways you can implement heart-healthy habits into your routine.
“Slow, sustained changes that will last should be prioritized rather than abrupt extreme changes that may not last,” he said.