There’s a calculator for cardiovascular disease. Here’s how it works

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There’s now a calculator to help you tweak your habits in a bid to cut down your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

Canadian researchers have created an algorithm to predict a person’s five-year cardiovascular disease risk using data from population health surveys linked with each surveyed person’s hospital admission records.

The idea is to help people understand which aspects of their daily lives are putting them most at risk for a group of diseases that include heart attacks and strokes so they can make the appropriate changes, says the lead author on the project. The results were published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“The response are more about healthy living as opposed to biomedical measures,” says Dr. Doug Manuel, senior core scientists at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and senior scientist with the Ottawa Hospital.

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“[It’s] more about what you can do yourself or how your community affects you, rather than what drug companies can do for you.”

Unlike past calculators, which function mostly like surveys, spitting out a risk level at the end, Manuel says this calculator will be more of an interactive, back and forth. A person’s risk adjusts every time they answer a question, letting them know right away whether their biggest risk comes from their smoking habit, their diet, or their lack of exercise.

The calculator relies on information from Ontario respondents to the Canadian Community Health Surveys. In addition to diet, exercise and smoking, it factors in alcohol consumption, stress, diabetes, high blood pressure, ethnicity, immigration status, education and the socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood a person lives in.

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Manuel hopes the calculator will inspire a re-think among people who are quick to accept a medication to treat one symptom without understanding how it may be connected with their overall health.

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“For women, the No. 1 risk is diet but do you know that?” He adds: “You may know that you can improve your diet, but is it your biggest problem and how much?”

If the information is more widely available and presented in more understandable ways, it may provoke better discussions about health, Manuel says.

The calculator will live online at Project Big Life, which already hosts calculators aimed at predicting things like life expectancy, health-care costs, and stroke risk. Manuel expects to add more calculators to the list before long.

Researchers are looking at calculators for diabetes and cancer. Another one focused on dementia is nearing completion, he says. Ultimately, Manuel would like to see more comprehensive calculators that merge data for all diseases.

“Everyone knows there’s common risk but we’re not assessing them as common risks.”

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