A team of Ottawa researchers is making it easier for people to calculate their risk of heart disease and change their unhealthy habits with the launch of an easy-to-use online calculator.

The Cardiovascular Disease Population Risk Tool (CVDPoRT) allows users to determine their risk for hospitalization or death from cardiovascular disease within the next five years by answering questions about their lifestyle, such as their physical activity, their alcohol consumption, their diet, and if they smoke. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in Canada.

Dr. Doug Manuel, the research's lead author and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital, says the calculator is unique because it also takes into account less obvious factors, such as sociodemographic status, environmental influences, stress levels, education, sense of belonging, ethnicity, immigration status, and other health conditions, such as diabetes.

While physicians will often check a patient's blood pressure and cholesterol levels, Dr. Manuel said they may not always ask about their lifestyle.

"I think giving this information [to the patient] really starts to allow patients to appreciate if they stop smoking or improve their diet how that's going to reduce their heart disease," he said.

The interactive calculator adjusts the patient's risk throughout the survey so users can see what specific factors affect their results as they go along.

The researchers used "big data" compiled from routine Statistics Canada health surveys of more than 100,000 Canadians from 2001 to 2007, along with data on hospitalizations and deaths from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) for their algorithm.

The results of the project were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday.

Dr. Manuel says the tool will save patients time because it's so easy to complete at home.

"At home, they can fill out information, assess the risk, take that in to the doctor and now start that conversation about how to prevent heart disease and stroke through healthy living," he told CTV News.

For example, if a patient learns they have a five per cent risk that means that five out of 100 people with similar risk factors will suffer a serious cardiovascular event in the next five years. The calculator will also provide users with an estimate of how old their heart is based on the lifestyle factors.

Patients are also more likely to provide more honest information because they can fill out the questions in the privacy of their own home as opposed to answering questions in-person at the doctor's office, according to Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a general internist at the Ottawa Hospital.

"I think this would probably be less intimidating for patients than being asked by their clinician," Dr. Wilson said. "I suspect they may be more honest with themselves than in front of a physician."

Dr. Manuel said patients shouldn't be nervous about the results they may receive if they answer honestly.

"I think people are going to be surprised that their risk of heart disease and stroke isn't as high as they may think, especially for women," he said. "I think people shouldn't be scared to use the calculator. I think people are going to get messages to support their healthy living and keep them motivated."

Project Big Life

The Cardiovascular Disease Population Risk Tool is the latest addition to Project Big Life, an online collection of easy-to-use health calculators developed by researchers at the Ottawa Hospital.

The calculators' algorithms use Canadian health data in order to predict things such as life expectancy, daily sodium intake, heart attack and stroke risk, and healthcare costs.

Dr. Manuel said they have already had approximately two million people use the online tools worldwide. He said the results patients receive at home will help doctors tailor treatments for them and encourage specific lifestyle changes.

"We're going to spend more time talking about what to do about things as opposed to figuring out what the problem is," he said.

With a report from CTV's medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip