Bald spots and earlobe creases may be more than just signs of aging. They may signal the onset of heart disease, according to research data presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2012 in Los Angeles.
In a large, long-term study, Danish researchers found that people with four signs of aging—receding hairline at the temples, baldness at the head’s crown, earlobe crease, and yellow fatty deposits around the eyelid—were 57 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 39 percent more likely to develop heart disease over a 35-year period.
Fatty cholesterol deposits around the eyes, a condition known as xanthelasmata, was the strongest individual predictor of both heart attack and heart disease, with a 35 percent increase in heart attacks among subjects with the condition, according to the researchers.
“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.
Two other common signs of aging, graying of the hair and wrinkles, were not linked to increased heart risks.
The study doesn’t prove that aging signs cause heart disease or vice versa. “But looking old for your age is a marker of poor [heart] health,” said Dr. Tybjaerg-Hansen.
The study involved about 11,000 men and women aged 40 years and older in 1976 to 1978. Nurses and laboratory technicians rated the quantity of gray hair, prominence of wrinkles, the type and extent of baldness, and the presence of earlobe crease and eyelid deposits.
Of the total, 7,537 had receding hairline at the temples, 3,938 had crown top baldness, 3,405 had earlobe crease, and 678 had fatty deposits around the eye.
Over the next 35 years, 3,401 people developed heart disease and 1,708 had a heart attack.
These signs predicted heart attack and heart disease independent of traditional risk factors, including age, sex, obesity, family history of heart disease, and others.
In men, receding hairline at the temples was associated with a 40% increased risk.
Kathy Maglite, M.D., director of women’s cardiac services at St. John’s Health Center in Los Angeles, said the findings are a reminder to doctors “to look at their patients.”
“Sometimes, doctors are so busy putting the blood pressure cuff on, and so on, that we forget to step back and take in the patient’s overall appearance. When I do, I notice that people having heart surgery look old for their age,” Dr. Maglite said.