Online heart health calculators: Know your risk. Change your habits.

June 3, 2019

Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death, but there are many behaviours you can change to decrease your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Online cardiovascular calculators, powered by big data and artificial intelligence (AI), are making it easier than ever before to help you identify your risk and the behaviours that can help you reduce it.  

But can an online calculator really predict your risk of heart attack and stroke? 

It may surprise you, but today’s computer algorithms and artificial intelligence can not only accurately predict your risk of developing certain diseases – they can also often do so better than the conventional prediction models used by clinicians.

Using big data gives us a new and effective ability to develop precision health algorithms.

- Dr. Doug Manuel, Senior Scientist, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

“Using big data gives us a new and effective ability to develop precision health algorithms,” says Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and professor with the Departments of Family Medicine and School of Epidemiology and Public Health, at the University of Ottawa. “When deployed online as risk calculators, these algorithms can empower individuals to predict their risk of developing diseases, dying, or using health care.”

According to, Dr. Doug Manuel’s life expectancy is 92.3 years and over his lifetime he will breathe 1.3 million litres of air.

Dr. Manuel recently spoke about the role of big data and artificial intelligence in predicating the risk of cardiovascular disease at the 7th International Ottawa Heart Conference: Big Data in Cardiovascular Disease, jointly held with the Toronto-Ottawa Heart Summit in Ottawa.  While he believes that online health calculators can make valuable information on health risks more widely available and understandable, Dr. Manuel cautions that they are only as good as the information that powers them.

“A better algorithm is not necessarily a better algorithm,” he says. “Does the data in the mix apply to you? Has the AI behind the calculator been validated for the population in which you live? These are questions that have to be addressed for computer algorithms to be of help in the real world.”

The Project Big Life Heart and Stroke Calculator is an example of well-designed algorithm that is already helping Canadians make healthier choices. Built and validated by Dr. Manuel and a team of fellow Canadian researchers, clinicians, data scientists and developers, the calculator allows individuals to predict their risk of hospitalization or death from cardiovascular disease within the next five years. The tool also provides heart age, an easy-to-understand measure of heart health.

"What sets this cardiovascular risk calculator apart from other calculators worldwide is that it looks at healthy living, and it is better calibrated to the Canadian population," says Dr. Manuel.

Using a big data approach, the calculator is based on the general health and lifestyle responses of over 100,000 Canadians from the Statistics Canada Canadian Community Health Surveys. The goal was to develop a formula for making predictions about the future occurrence of heart attack or stroke based on a multitude of factors including age, smoking status, alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity and ethnicity, to name a few.

What is your probability of developing cardiovascular disease given you are a smoker or often stressed or live in a neighbourhood with below average socioeconomic status?

“Big data and AI is allowing us to develop risk-prediction algorithms that can help people quickly answer these kinds of questions with easy to use online tools,” says Dr. Manuel. “We hope this and other tools powered by big data we are developing can help empower people.”