Going gray? Hair color may indicate heart health

Bill Ruth says he discovered he had a heart blockage at age 45. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Bill Ruth is a bit of a regular at the Swedish Heart Institute. His first visit was in 1979.

"They determined that I had a blockage, and I was, men are in denial of things like that," Ruth said. "I said, 'Geez, that can't be.' "

He didn't believe it, because he was only 45 years old at the time and thought that seemed too young for heart problems. And in a photo taken in the hospital right after surgery, he does look young.

By his early 50s, "your hair was graying," his wife Susan Ruth said. "It was starting to gray."

Doctors say that's significant because when a man starts looking older on the outside, he's probably showing more signs of aging internally, too. Researchers at Cairo University tested that idea by analyzing the hair color and heart health of 585 men. No gray hair? Those men were less likely to have coronary artery disease. But heart risk went up when men had salt and pepper hair or were all gray, regardless of their age. They presented their findings at EuroPrevent 2017, an event hosted by the European Society of Cardiology.

Dr. John O'Mara, a cardiologist at Seattle Swedish Heart Institute, said the gray hair test is a valuable tool, because it's a quick and easy way to know someone could be at higher risk for heart problems.

"I think if you're starting to go gray and you're still younger, then it's probably a good idea to think about seeing your doctor about getting some screening test done to evaluate for coronary disease," O'Mara said. "We talk about chronological age versus apparent age. Does a patient look older than he really is? That's significant."

And while you can't do much about going gray, you can slow down heart disease.

"I still think diet and exercise are far more important than this, and you can do a lot more in terms of prevention with diet and exercise," O'Mara said.

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