Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, nearly 2,600 Americans die as a result of CVD each day.

One of the most frightening things about CVD is that it may go undetected until a life-threatening event occurs. Although it is evident that subclinical CVD (the presence of CVD in its early stages, before symptoms develop) can take years off your life, no study has determined how it affects the quality of life.

A new study in the October 27, 2003 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with subclinical CVD experienced age-related declines similar to people five years older. People without subclinical CVD were more likely to remain disease-free, physically adept, and mentally alert.

About the Study

This study included 2,932 people over the age of 65 who had “successfully” aged. For this study, successful aging was defined as having intact physical and mental functioning, and being free of CVD, cancer, and lung disease.

Before the study began, the researchers gathered information about the participants’ medical history, health behaviors, and cardiovascular risk factors. The participants also underwent the following tests for subclinical CVD before the study began and annually thereafter:

  • Carotid ultrasonography – to evaluate the main arteries in the neck for thickness, quality, and blood flow
  • Ankle-arm index - to test for CVD of the lower extremities
  • Electrocardiography – to evaluate the rhythm and electrical activity of the heart

The researchers tracked all cancer, CVD, lung disease cases. The participants filled out questionnaires to determine whether they had declines in physical and/or mental functioning. The study lasted eight years.

The Findings

By the end of the study, 48% of the participants had “successfully” aged, with no signs of cancer, CVD, lung disease, or declines in physical or mental functioning. Participants without subclinical CVD continued to successfully age for 5–6 years longer than those with subclinical disease (5.6 years in men and 6.5 years in women).

Not surprisingly, age at study entry was the strongest predictor of successful aging. But the participants who did not smoke, were more physically active, and who did not have diabetes also had more years of successful aging.

How Does This Affect You?

These results suggest that age, health habits, and subclinical CVD are all strongly related to successful aging. Since participants without subclinical CVD in this study had 5–6 extra years of successful aging, reducing your risk of subclinical CVD now would appear to be in your best interest.

What can you do to prevent subclinical CVD? First, as evidenced by these results, stopping smoking, becoming physical active, and decreasing your risk of diabetes can help extend your years of healthy living. Furthermore, keeping tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure levels—and having them treated if necessary—can also reduce your risk of developing subclinical CVD.

This study and others point out that sickness and age need not be synonymous. Age-related declines in health and function may have as much to do with the way we take care of ourselves as the passage of time. Taking steps now to prevent subclinical and clinical CVD can apparently help many of us remain healthy, active, and alert longer than we might have expected.