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Healthy Lifestyle May Prevent Heart Disease in Nearly Three Out of Four Women

Authors endorse six steps to avoid heart trouble

A new study that followed nearly 70,000 women for two decades concluded that three-quarters of heart attacks in young women could be prevented if the women closely followed six healthy lifestyle practices.

The report, published January 5 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, followed participants in a study of nurses established in 1989, which surveyed more than 116,000 subjects about their diets and other health habits every 2 years. Researchers at Indiana University, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed data from 69,247 participants who met the study’s requirements.

“Although mortality rates from heart disease in the U.S. have been in steady decline for the last four decades, women aged 35 to 44 have not experienced the same reduction,” said lead author Andrea K. Chomistek, ScD. “This disparity may be explained by unhealthy lifestyle choices. We wanted to find out what proportion of heart disease cases could be attributed to unhealthy habits.”

Healthy habits were defined as not smoking, a normal body mass index, physical activity of at least 2.5 hours per week, watching 7 or fewer hours of television a week, consuming a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day on average, and a diet in the top 40% of a measure of diet quality based on the Harvard School of Public Health healthy eating plate.

During 20 years of follow-up, 456 women had heart attacks, and 31,691 women were diagnosed with one or more cardiovascular disease risk factors, including type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia. The average age of the women in the study was 37.1 years at the outset; the average age at a heart disease diagnosis was 50.3 years; and the average age at a diagnosis with a risk factor for heart disease was 46.8 years.

The researchers found that women who adhered to all six healthy lifestyle practices had a 92% lower risk of heart attack and a 66% lower risk of developing a risk factor for heart disease. This lower risk means that three quarters of heart attacks and nearly half of all risk factors in younger women might have been prevented if all of the women had adhered to all six healthy lifestyle factors, the authors said.

For women who were diagnosed with a risk factor, adherence to at least four of the healthy lifestyle factors was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease compared with those who did not follow any of the healthy lifestyle practices.

Independently, not smoking, adequate physical activity, a better diet, and a lower body mass index (BMI) were each associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Women who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol — approximately one drink per day on average — had the lowest risk compared with those who did not drink at all and those who drank more.

“This is an important public health message,” Chomistek said. “Women should begin following these lifestyle practices early in life, especially if they are already taking medication for a risk factor, such as hypertension or high cholesterol. It’s an easy way to prevent future heart trouble.”

Sources: Medical Xpress; January 5, 2015; and ACC; January 5, 2015.

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