Research shows that certain healthy habits have a significant impact on heart disease risk.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is good for your heart. It’s not a novel concept, but how much of a difference does it really make?

A team of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Indiana University, and Harvard Medical School recently set out to examine how certain lifestyle factors impact the risk of heart disease in younger women (ages 27 to 44 years). Examining this particular segment of the population is significant, as the mortality rate for coronary heart disease (CHD) has plateaued among young American women in recent decades, while the rate for the overall population has declined.

The researchers analyzed young women’s adherence to six specific lifestyle factors for their study – not smoking, maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI), exercising at least 2½ hours per week, watching seven hours or less of television per week, consuming an average of no more than one alcoholic drink per day, and maintaining a healthy diet. The Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate was used as the benchmark for determining who was following a healthy eating plan. Similar to the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, the Healthy Eating Plate features a foundation of fresh plant-based foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.

The study found that sticking to a healthy lifestyle indeed had a significant impact on heart disease risk. Specifically, the study showed that women who followed all six healthy habits were 96 percent less likely to develop heart disease. Even when looked at individually, rather than collectively, the researchers found that most of the lifestyle factors – BMI, smoking, exercise, and diet – had an independent impact on heart disease risk. Of all the lifestyle factors, having an unhealthy BMI was shown to pose the greatest risk of developing heart disease.

“Our study demonstrates that adhering to a healthy lifestyle is critical for lowering a person’s risk of developing heart disease,” says study senior author Eric B. Rimm, ScD, a BWH epidemiologist and Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. “Taking your medication and monitoring your blood pressure are important, but much more should be done for the prevention of heart disease at any time of life, because heart disease is still the number one killer of women and men.”

The study was published in the January 2015 edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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– Chris P.

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