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Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 09:59 AM

Looking old may be a sign of heart risks, study shows

By Nicole Ostrow
Bloomberg News

NEW YORK — Earlobe creases, hairline receding at the temples, baldness at the crown of the head and yellow fat deposits around the eyelids are more than just signs of aging.

They're also markers of heart disease that doctors should note during patient examinations, according to a study presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association meeting in Los Angeles. Patches of fatty bumps around the eyes were the strongest single predictor of cardiovascular illness among the four traits, the study showed.

A small consolation: Wrinkles elsewhere on the face and gray hair seemed just ordinary consequences of aging and did not correlate with heart risks.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark found that people with at least three of these characteristics had a 57 percent greater risk for a heart attack and a 39 percent higher chance of heart disease.

The study suggests signs of aging are markers of poor heart health in addition to risk factors such as high cholesterol, said Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen, a senior study author.

Doctors already assume "that 'looking old for your age' is a marker of poor health," said Tybjaerg-Hansen, professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, in an email. "Our study shows that aging signs may mark poor cardiovascular health and therefore validates the prognostic importance of this very simple clinical exam."

More studies are needed to better understand how these aging signs are tied to risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, the authors said. In the meantime, known risk factors such as cholesterol levels should be treated, she said.

"Because some aging signs are independent of well-known cardiovascular risk factors, individuals with these signs should perhaps be treated more aggressively with regard to lifestyle changes and lipid-lowering therapy," she said.

Researchers in the study analyzed 10,885 men and women ages 40 and older from the Copenhagen Heart Study beginning in 1976. Of those, 7,537 had a receding hairline at the temples, 3,938 had baldness at the upper back of the head, 3,405 had a crease in their earlobe and 678 had fatty deposits around the eye, called xanthelasmata.

During the 35 years of follow up, 3,401 study participants developed heart disease (clogged arteries) and 1,708 had a heart attack. With each additional sign of aging, the risk for heart attack and cardiovascular disease rose. This was true at all ages and among men and women, even after taking into account other factors such as family history of heart disease.

Those with the highest risk were in their 70s with multiple visible signs of aging, the research found.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.


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