By Bill Berkrot
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Common visible signs of aging may not just be a vanity or employment problem. They may also be a harbinger of heart disease.
In a large, long-term study, people who displayed three to four signs of aging, such as receding hairlines at the temples, baldness at the crown of the hear, earlobe creases or yellow fatty deposits around the eyelids had a 57 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 39 percent increased risk of developing heart disease, Danish researchers found.
Fatty cholesterol deposits around the eyes, a condition known as xanthelasmata, was the strongest individual predictor of both heart attack and heart disease, according to data presented on Tuesday at the American Heart Association scientific meeting in Los Angeles. There was a 35 percent increase in heart attacks among subjects with the condition, researchers found.
"The visible signs of aging reflect physiologic or biologic age and are independent of chronologic age," said Dr. Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen, lead investigator of the Copenhagen Heart Study and a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen.
Researchers were able to rule out gray hair and wrinkles as predictors of heart disease. Tybjaerg-Hansen, a youthful looking 60-year-old, said those factors appear to reflect chronological age rather than health issues.
Beginning in 1976, researchers analyzed nearly 11,000 subjects 40 years of age and older for a variety of common aging signs. Of them, 7,537 had receding hairlines at the temples, 3,938 had baldness at the crown of the head, 3,405 had earlobe crease and 678 sported fatty deposits around the eye.
In 35 years of follow-up through May of 2011, 3,401 of those subjects developed heart disease and 1,708 suffered a heart attack, researchers found.
The aging signs predicted risk of heart attack and heart disease independent of traditional risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking, researchers said.
The risk increased with each additional sign of aging in all age groups among men and women, with the highest risk found among those who had three or four of the problematic signs.
"Checking these visible signs of aging should be a routine part of every doctor's physical examination," Tybjaerg-Hansen said.
Tybjaerg-Hansen, who got involved in the Copenhagen study in the late 80s, said lifestyle changes and more intensive lipid-lowering therapy should be considered for patients who look older than their age.
One limitation of the study was that it followed an all white population, so the results cannot necessarily be applied to other races and ethnic groups without further study, she said.
(Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)