More Squash, Less Bacon: Calculating Your Real-Life Heart Risk

November 14, 2014

Cardiovascular risk calculators usually expect you to know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. I have enough trouble remembering my email password.

So this new calculator from the Harvard School of Public Health may be a boon for people like me. It’s designed to more accurately gauge risk for people who are in their 40s and 50s, especially women. And it does that by focusing on how lifestyle factors like diet and exercise affect heart disease risk, rather than numbers.

It may be the first data-driven risk predictor based on healthful lifestyle factors.

Indeed, taking the Healthy Heart Score online quiz is more like a conversation with a cheerfully nosy friend than with a doctor. Am I lifting weights these days? Doing yoga? Playing squash? (Squash? OK, Harvard.)

It has an odd fascination with breakfast: Eating oatmeal? High-fiber cereal? Bran? Grits? Juice?

The calculator crunched my numbers, and told me my risk is low. Hooray! But it did note my less-than-slight BMI and somewhat slothful ways.

The only high-risk rating I got out of 10 lifestyle factors was for eating processed meats. What? I never eat processed meats. So I went back to the quiz to check. Oh yes, the bacon. And the Italian sausage.

NPR’s economics correspondent John Ydstie also took the quiz and also got dinged for eating processed meats. We looked more closely and realized that while the calculator is willing to grant us the occasional beer or glass or wine, it has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bacon.

Ydstie and I decided we’re willing to sacrifice a few years of life for bacon. But you may be wiser.

Iimproving these risk factors in midlife can reduce the risk of heart disease and early death by 70 to 80 percent, the study authors note. “The absence of established risk factors at the age of 55 is associated with a lifetime risk of CVD of 5 to 8 percent,” they wrote.

The study was published Friday in the Journal of the American Heart Association. It’s based on data from 62,025 women in the the Nurses Health Study and 34,478 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, tracking how they lived and what became of them for up to 24 years.

Because of the large number of people involved and the long time span, it should give a pretty reliable sense of risk and reward when it comes to lifestyle choices.

And that calculator does give practical advice on how to improve your odds.

I think I’ll head out for a walk.

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