Looking Old May Be a Sign of Heart Trouble

Have you seen the Internet ads for the 53-year-old mom who looks 27? Not only does she look better than people who actually show their age, a new Danish study has found there's a good chance she'll live longer, too.

The older you look, the worse shape your heart is in, the authors of the ongoing Copenhagen Heart Study concluded.

The study, which began in 1976, followed 11,000 men and women for 35 years to find the connection between physical appearance and heart health.

Originally, the investigators paid attention to seven telltale signs of aging. They eventually found that wrinkles, gray hair and cholesterol deposits on the cornea of the eye were all part of the inevitable wear and tear on the body rather than predictors of bad health.

"These are signs of physical aging, not necessarily biological aging," said the study's lead investigator, Dr. Anne Tybaerg-Hansen.

That left four physical traits - a receding hairline, baldness on top of the head, earlobe creases and yellow, fatty deposits around the eyelid - as visible evidence of heart disease. People with at least three of these markers for aging had a 57 percent increased risk for heart attack and a 39 percent increased risk for heart disease.

When the researchers considered gender separately, they found that hair loss in women was not linked with an increased risk of heart disease. However, the men with receding hairlines showed a 40 percent higher risk in men with hair loss than those without.

Overall, the group for whom the new results raises a red flag was men between ages 70 and 79. In this group, 45 percent of those with all four aging signs developed heart disease, compared to 31 percent of those with none of the four.

The markers used in the study are often cited as predictors of heart disease. Scientists have long speculated that male-pattern baldness may be linked to high levels of testosterone, which, in turn, seem to be associated with a higher incidence of heart disease.

Experts have suspected for decades that earlobe creases and cholesterol buildup on the eye are signs of heart trouble.

Wrinkles, which weren't associated with heart health in the study, have been tied to poor bone health. Last year, a Yale study found women with deeply furrowed brows in early menopause may also have weak bones.

Tabaerg-Hansen said her research gave no clear answers as to why the four physical traits were so closely associated with the risk of heart disease. The next step would be to try to find out why they're connected and to see if they might also predict other diseases of aging, such as cancer.

Tabaerg-Hansen added that there's no reason physicians can't look out for these signs right now as they assess which of their patients are in poor cardiovascular health.

"This new study should give clinicians greater incentive to treat patients who show these physical signs," she said. "They could suggest lifestyle changes and therapies for those who have the appearance of higher risk."

The study results were presented at this week's American Heart Association scientific meeting in Los Angeles. They have not yet been published.