If someone were to ask you the age of your heart, you may wonder if it’s a trick question. After all, how can one of your body parts be older than you? If you’re 47 years old, doesn’t that mean your heart is 47 as well? Technically, you’re right. However, some hearts lead tougher lives than others and get old before their time.

Your heart’s age is not based on calendar age but on the condition of your heart and blood vessels. So if you’re 47, it’s possible your heart’s age may be 40, 50, 60 or even older.

Read on for answers to common questions about how your heart changes with age, how you can determine how old your heart is, and what you can do to reduce your heart’s age.

Are there differences in how your heart functions by age?

Your heart pumps blood and oxygen to the rest of your body by squeezing and then relaxing, something it does about 100,000 times each day. And, it’s always changing to make sure your body has the amount of blood you need – adjusting blood pressure, flow and volume based on what you’re doing, your heart’s health and your age.

A human heart grows through childhood, reaching its full size when a child stops growing. But that doesn’t mean the heart stops changing. By the time you’re 20 years old, your heart’s function can begin to decline as a normal part of aging.

Here’s what happens as the heart and your circulatory system age:

Your heart works more slowly

As you age, it takes longer for your heart to squeeze and relax – by as much as 2-5% per year.

Your heart can’t pump as powerfully

With each year that passes, your heart pumps less blood. When you’re 20 years old, your heart pumps up to four times its resting capacity – every minute. But, by the time you’re 80 years old, your heart only pumps twice its resting capacity during the same amount of time.

Your heart muscle shrinks

Part of what contributes to your heart’s reduced pumping power is loss of muscle. A heart can lose about 0.3 grams (or about one hundredth of an ounce) of muscle yearly. While it doesn’t seem like much, it’s important to remember that an average woman’s heart is about 8 ounces and an average man’s heart is around 10 ounces.

The left ventricle gets thicker

The walls of the left ventricle (the main pumping chamber) become thicker and stiffer as you age. This changes how much blood your heart can handle and how well your heart can pump blood through the blood vessels.

The mitral valve gets stiffer

The mitral valve helps control blood flow through the left side of the heart. When the mitral valve gets stiffer, it closes more slowly, increasing the chance that blood may flow the wrong way.

Exercise capacity goes down

Older hearts can’t beat as fast as young hearts. That’s why there are such large differences in exercise heart rate zones by age. The target heart rate for vigorous exercise is much lower for an 80-year-old (90-110 bpm) compared to a 20-year-old (140-170 bpm).

Your arteries clog up

As you age, it’s more likely that your arteries are narrowed by plaque building up in their walls. This condition, called atherosclerosis, makes it harder for oxygen-rich blood to get to the rest of your body.

How does age increase your chance of heart disease?

Your chance of heart disease significantly increases with age, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The following chart includes the average chance of heart attack and coronary heart disease by age and gender.

For a personalized result, use the cardiovascular risk calculator on the AHA website to see how your gender, age, race and risk factors can influence your chance of cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease and risk of heart attack by age and gender

Age and gender Coronary heart disease Heart attack
Ages 20 to 39 – men 0.6% 0.4%
Ages 20 to 39 – women 0.9% 0.4%
Ages 40 to 59 – men 6.9% 3.2%
Ages 40 to 59 – women 6.6% 1.9%
Ages 60 to 79 – men 22.0% 12.6%
Ages 60 to 79 – women 13.4% 4.5%
Age 80 and older – men 33.9% 15.8%
Age 80 and older – women 21.6% 8.7%

What causes your heart to age faster than the rest of you?

The goal is to have a heart that’s the same age or younger than you. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American adult has a heart that’s seven years older than they are. Here are reasons why someone could have a heart older than them:

Health risk factors and heart age

Your heart’s age increases if you smoke, eat poorly, don’t exercise enough, or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity. Approximately 75% of all heart attacks and strokes link back to these risk factors.

High blood pressure strains your heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure. High cholesterol narrows your arteries and smoking causes blood to clot your heart’s arteries. All of this, in essence, ages your heart and puts you at risk of developing symptoms of heart disease.

Gender and heart age

The average man has a heart that is 8 years older than he is. In comparison, women have hearts that are, on average, 5 years older than their actual age.

Race and heart age

On average, African-American men and women have hearts that are 11 years older than their actual ages. They are also more likely to have risk factors for a higher heart age, including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

How can you reduce your heart age and improve your heart health?

It’s possible to reverse the age of your heart. Here are the most effective things you can do to keep your heart healthy:

  • Stop smoking or using tobacco. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart – and for your overall health.
  • Improve your eating habits. Get in the habit of eating a heart-healthy diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts. When possible, eat freshly prepared foods and avoid highly processed foods that have lots of preservatives and added sugar.
  • Eliminate or cut back on alcohol. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you can improve your numbers by limiting how much alcohol you drink. Both men and women should aim for no more than seven drinks each week.
  • Exercise regularly. Adopt a routine of daily physical activity. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week is a good goal.
  • Manage your medical conditions. If you need help controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, work with your doctor and health care team.
  • Watch your weight. If you are overweight, dropping a few pounds can have a big impact on your risk factors for heart disease. Sometimes all it takes is 5-10 pounds. But talk to your doctor about what makes sense for your health.
  • Pay attention to your mental health. Practicing gratitude, kindness and mindfulness will help you feel better – and may also help limit the negative effects of stress on your heart. Plus, feeling better about yourself will make you want to work to reduce your heart age.
  • Focus on your goals. Make a list of your long-term goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them. Then put them on your refrigerator or somewhere visible as a reminder. Or, make a list of the people and situations that lead you to make healthy and unhealthy decisions. It can help to spend more time with the people and in the situations that nudge you to make healthy decisions.

How can you check your heart age?

The truth is there’s no easy way to determine your heart health and heart age. There are a variety of heart age calculators available online – and it can be interesting to plug in your information and get an idea of how old (or young) your heart is. But it’s important to remember that these calculators provide results based on limited information and are not a substitute for your doctor’s advice.

Heart tests and screenings

Your doctor can recommend heart tests and screenings that are appropriate for you. These can include tests for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or other conditions that are causing your heart to age faster. So, make sure to keep up with preventive care such as your annual exam.

Help your heart age gracefully