Following six healthy lifestyle habits may reduce women’s risk for heart disease by 92 percent, compared to women with none of these habits, a new study published in Journal of American College of Cardiology suggests. Researchers from Harvard and other centers tracked 88,940 women whose ages were 27 to 44 at baseline over a 20-year period. With February marking American Heart Month, dedicated to raising awareness of a disease that kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, the study could offer new hope by highlighting potential primary prevention strategies for medical providers to recommend and patients to adopt.
Heart Disease Rates and Deaths Remain High Among Younger Women
The findings are particularly important for younger women. Among those ages 35 to 44, deaths from heart disease rose on average by 1.3 percent a year between 1997 and 2002, and have only dropped modestly since then. Of the 435,000 American women who have heart attacks each year, 83,000 are under age 65 and 35,000 are under 55. Under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal, the Women’s Heart Foundation reports. Yet rates of hypertension and smoking have declined in women over the past decade and medical management of high cholesterol has improved. The researchers suggest that rising rates of obesity and diabetes among younger women may be key factors that explain why heart disease incidence and mortality remains relatively high in this group. The study analyzed data from questionnaires completed by participants in the Nurses Health Study II between 1991 and 2011. During that period, 456 women were diagnosed with heart disease and 31,691 developed one or more clinical risk factors.
6 Lifestyle Habits Could Prevent Nearly 75 Percent of Heart Disease
The study found that only 5 percent of participants followed an optimal lifestyle. However, if all of the women studied were in the optimal group, the analysis suggests that nearly 75 percent of the documented heart disease events could have been prevented. The following optimal lifestyle choices were studied. The more of these habits the women followed over a 20-year period, the lower their risk for developing heart disease or its clinical risk factors:
- Not smoking. (defined as no current tobacco use). The study found that of all the healthy lifestyle choices studied, this factor was linked to the greatest reduction in heart disease risk.
- 5 hours per week or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise. Physical activity was the second most important factor for reducing risk.
- Eating a healthy diet, defined as an Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)-2010 score in the top 40 percent of the cohort distribution. This index measures how closely people follow a diet similar to the Healthy Eating Plate created by nutritional experts at Harvard School of Public Health and editors at Harvard Health Publications as an alternative to the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations. A recent study links higher (healthier) AHEI scores to lower rates of chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.
- Moderate alcohol intake (about 1 drink daily) for women who are not pregnant. The researchers note that while light drinking may have cardiovascular benefits, it may increase risk for other conditions.
- Maintaining a healthy weight (defined as a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9).
- Watching TV 7 hours per week or less. This factor had the least impact on risk.
What else can patients and clinicians do to help prevent heart disease and other chronic conditions? In our next blog post, we will look at the role of inflammation testing to predict and stratify “hidden risk” for heart attacks and strokes.