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Fewer than one in 10 Canadian adults and fewer than one in five Canadian youths are in ideal cardiovascular health when scored on key risk factors and behaviours associated with heart disease.

The troubling result, based data from nearly half a million individuals, is part of a newly unveiled index that offers a discerning look at cardiovascular health trends across Canada, including gender and regional comparisons.

Overall, Canadians adults aged 20 and over average 3.9 on the index where a score of 0 is worst and 6 represents ideal heart health. A 10-year analysis reveals that while Canadians are making modest improvements in some areas – for example by smoking less, eating healthier and becoming more active – those gains are offset by parallel increases in risk factors such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, all harbingers of heart disease.

"There's lots of room for improvement," said Jack Tu, a cardiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and a member of the Cardiovascular Health in Ambulatory Care Research Team (CANHEART), which developed the study.

Cadiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, is second only to cancer as a leading cause of death in Canada. It is also one of the most preventable because many of the risk factors associated with heart disease are a function of individual behaviour, including diet and exercise.

In developing the index, researchers looked at six metrics for cardiovascular health in adults age 20 and up . A separate index, which excludes hypertension and diabetes, was used to score youths aged 12 to 19. Data from 464,883 people who participated in the Canadian Community Health Care Survey show how Canadians have been faring over the past decade.

The results, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, show that, on average, British Columbians enjoy the greatest level of heart health while Newfoundlanders score lowest. The regional averages do not include the sparsely populated Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Researchers said the index offers a more quantitative way of assessing cardiovascular health and will help the Heart and Stroke Foundation with its goal of improving cardiovascular health in Canadians by 10 per cent by 2020. It will also help determine where health promotion resources can be best allocated for maximum impact. On an individual level, Dr. Tu said, the index should serve as a wakeup call that heart health depends heavily on behavioural choices. "By working on improving your lifestyle," he said, "you really can dramatically improve your likelihood of living a longer and happier life."