July 18, 2024

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A Higher Heart Health Score Means a Younger Biological Age. Here’s How to Calculate Yours

6 min read

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that a high heart score is linked to a lower biological age.
  • The AHA recently added sleep to its list of essential heart health factors, making it Life’s Essential 8.
  • Tackling just one of Life’s Essential 8 can positively impact the others.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that certain health behaviors and factors—coined as Life’s Essential 8—can impact health at the cellular level, decreasing biological age. 

The study found that people who scored higher on Life’s Essential 8 had lower epigenetic age biomarkers that help protect against cardiovascular disease (CVD). This finding further cements the knowledge that living a healthy lifestyle can impact longevity and heart health. 

“This study finds that better scores on Life’s Essential 8 are associated with younger DNA methylation-based epigenetic age, independent of chronological age,” Randi Foraker, PhD, professor of medicine for the Institute for Informatics, Data Science, and Biostatistics at Washington University in St. Louis, told Verywell.

“An opportunity to have a younger epigenetic age, even among those who are at risk of faster epigenetic aging, could certainly help motivate those who could change their behaviors to have an impact on their heart health,” Foraker said.

Making changes to the health factors that make up Life’s Essential 8 can help you reduce your risk of CVD and decrease your biological age.

What Is the Biological Age?

While chronological age refers to the number of years from birth to the present day, biological age indicates how well the body functions. Experts use biomarkers (molecules in the body that signify abnormalities or disease) to gauge biological age and determine the risk of certain chronic conditions, such as CVD.

A key finding from the study indicates that the daily habits included in Life’s Essential 8 can directly impact how well your cells function by reducing DNA methylation, a chemical process in the body linked to CVD, among other conditions.

What Determines Your Heart Health Score

The Life’s Essential 8 are eight factors that contribute to your cardiovascular health. The eight components that comprise your heart health score include the following:

  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Tobacco use
  • Sleep
  • Weight
  • Cholesterol
  • Blood sugar
  • Blood pressure

The new study finds that increasing your heart health score can help decrease your biological age and risk of developing CVD. Below is a deeper explanation of each component and guidance on calculating your score.

Eating Well

Consuming nutrient-dense foods is a significant factor in reducing the risk of CVD and other chronic conditions. While eating the right amount of calories for your needs is important, the type of foods you eat also significantly impacts your overall health.

The AHA recommends the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and the Mediterranean Eating Plan for Americans (MEPA) diets to manage weight and decrease high blood pressure. The Life’s Essential 8 program recommends that experts use the DASH diet metrics to assess population adherence to the diet plan and the MEPA diet when assessing individual health.

The MEPA emphasizes eating:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Bread and other grains
  • Potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds
  • Olive oil as the primary fat source
  • Low amounts of dairy products, eggs, fish, and poultry

“There is significant controversy regarding diet and CVD reduction,” Abha Khandelwal, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford Health Care, told Verywell.

“Both the DASH and Mediterranean diets have been effective at reducing CVD in populations as a whole, but we have a lot to learn on how certain diets perform at an individual level,” Khandelwal said. “For my patients, I recommend using common sense in dietary choices—less processed [foods], a clean, plant-based diet, low salt, and in appropriate volumes.”

The heart health score for diet is based on how well you follow the MEPA diet. 


Be More Active

Participating in regular physical activity boosts your heart health. Experts consider the duration and intensity of exercise when determining the impact of physical activity on your heart health. The more minutes of physical activity you bank, the better your heart health score. 

According to a study published in Circulation, which uses the Physical Activity Guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services as a threshold, one minute of moderate activity equals one minute. In comparison, one minute of vigorous activity counts as two minutes.


Quit Tobacco

Vaping, smoking cigarettes, and second-hand smoke exposure decreases your heart health score and is a significant heart disease risk factor. Your current smoking status is the metric used to determine your score for the tobacco section of Life’s Essential 8.


Get Healthy Sleep

Consistent restful sleep was added to Life’s Essential 7 list in 2022 because thousands of studies found it is a crucial factor in overall health, including reducing the risk of developing CVD. 

The hours of sleep you get per night is the key metric in calculating your sleep health score. The AHA recommends that adults get 7–9 hours of sleep daily for optimal cardiovascular health, with longer and shorter sleep durations decreasing your score.


Manage Weight

Obesity is a significant risk factor for developing CVD and a variety of other chronic conditions that affect quality of life. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, reducing stress, and sleeping at least seven hours a night are great ways to manage weight and reduce your Body Mass Index (BMI).

The AHA uses BMI, which is your weight divided by your height, to gauge a healthy body weight when determining your health score. The lower your BMI, the higher your score.


Control Cholesterol 

High cholesterol, which leads to plaque accumulation in the arteries, is a key driver of CVD. High cholesterol stems from many factors, including:

  • Certain medications
  • Genetics
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet

Manage Blood Sugar

Over time, high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can damage your nerves and blood vessels, putting you at risk for heart disease. Eating foods high in carbohydrates and sugar releases an abundance of glucose into the bloodstream. Insulin, secreted from the pancreas, brings the glucose into the cells. 

Type 2 diabetes is when the pancreas gradually loses the ability to produce insulin, leaving you with consistently high blood sugar.

Common ways to decrease blood sugar include:

  • Adjust your eating plan
  • Adjust your physical activity
  • Adjust your diabetes medication (if applicable)

The AHA uses fasting blood glucose or hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) results to determine your blood sugar health score.


Manage Blood Pressure

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has a long history of wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular system by causing the heart to work harder to pump blood, raising your risk for a heart attack and heart failure.

Common tips for managing high blood pressure include:

  • Diet and exercise
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce stress
  • Take medications properly

Using an appropriately sized blood pressure cuff to measure systolic and diastolic blood pressure is how you get your health score for blood pressure.


How to Calculate Your Health Score

In addition to using the guidance above, you can calculate your health score and learn more about ways to increase it through the AHA’s My Life Check site.

The Bottom Line

A big takeaway of Life’s Essential 8 is that they are interconnected. For example, the effects of eating a healthy diet will, in turn, improve your blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight, positively impacting your quality of life and reducing your risk for CVD. 

“We personalize risk assessment for our patients and address what we think are key drivers for their CV health,” Khandelwal said. “For example, a patient who [has poorly controlled diabetes] may have that as their driving risk factor, while a [woman in perimenopause] may have equal contributions of sleep, diet, and weight.”

For many, knowing where to start can be the hardest step in making minor changes to your daily habits. Taking small steps to address even one of Life’s Essential 8 can positively impact your health

What This Means For You

Incorporating health habits included in Life’s Essential 8 can contribute to your heart health score and reduce your biological age. A younger biological age allows you to enjoy an increased quality of life for longer. Calculate your score and take small steps to change your daily habits. A higher score indicates a reduced risk of developing heart disease.

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