June 5 (UPI) -- Assessing how much elderly people exercise may help determine their risk for heart disease, a study published Friday in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality and Outcomes has found.
The research revealed that seniors who rated their levels of physical activity lower on a zero to 10 scale were nearly twice as likely to die from coronary artery disease as those who scored themselves higher.
Conducting the assessment during routine medical appointments could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of conditions like atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, a common underlying cause of heart disease-related death, the authors said.
"With people now living longer, there is a growing need to determine how we can best detect latent heart disease and its associated clinical risk in older adults," Dr. Alan Rozanski, a professor of cardiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said in a press release.
"Our study showed that simply asking patients to rate their level of physical activity, while using a test to look at the plaque in their coronary arteries, markedly improved our ability to predict patients' risk for dying over their next decade of life," Rozanski said.
Approximately 610,000 Americans die from heart disease annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atherosclerosis is the underlying cause in roughly half of these deaths, research indicates.
The condition is caused by the accumulation of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries. Regular exercise -- in addition to diet, quitting or avoiding smoking and maintaining a healthy weight -- can help prevent atherosclerosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For their research, Rozanski and his colleagues assessed 2,318 patients between age 65 and 84 using coronary artery calcium, or CAC, scanning -- a chest computed tomography scan that detects and measures the amount of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries.
Study participants filled out a questionnaire before the scan, which included rating current level of physical activity on a scale from zero -- or none -- to 10 -- always. Participants' resting heart rate, blood pressure, height and weight, as well as medical history, including hypertension, diabetes and tobacco use, were also recorded.
The researchers followed the participants for 10 years. Those who reported less physical activity had the highest mortality rates -- 2.9 percent annually -- compared to patients who reported more physical activity -- 1.7 percent annually -- researchers said.
Those with little or no evidence of atherosclerosis had low mortality rates regardless of their physical activity scores, the researchers said.
However, participants with evidence of significant atherosclerosis -- CAC scores above 400 -- who reported higher levels of physical activity had lower risk for death, they said.
In fact, death rates among those with high CAC scores who reported high physical activity were similar to those found in participants with low CAC scores and low physical activity.
"Our results indicate that a simple assessment of self-reported daily-life physical activity can substantially improve the effectiveness of CAC scanning for risk stratifying older adults and is strongly encouraged," Rozanski said. "This is consistent with recent suggestions to make assessment of physical activity a 'fifth vital sign.'"