Features July 2012 Issue

Meeting Greater Number of Heart Health Factors Extends Life

But research shows too few people regularly practice healthy habits.

Your doctor tells you repeatedly to get more exercise, eat a healthy diet and watch your blood pressure, because those are among the key steps toward a healthier heart and a longer life. Now a recent study shows just how much those healthy behaviors can help.

A study of nearly 45,000 adults found that those who met more of the seven recommended cardiovascular health behaviors (see chart) had a significantly lower risk of death compared to those who met fewer factors. Researchers, who published their findings online March 16 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), also noted that a low percentage of study participants actually practiced all seven heart-healthy behaviors.

Leslie Cho, MD, Director of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, praises the study because it shows that every factor contributes significantly to your cardiovascular health.

“I think it is an important study because it is again stressing the importance of controlling all the risk factors,” she says. “We shouldn’t feel good about controlling just one. We should be hyper-vigilant about all of them.”

Unfortunately, researchers found that only about 1.2 percent of the study participants met all seven cardiovascular health metrics. Younger participants, women and those with higher education levels tended to be the most vigilant about their heart-healthy behaviors.

What’s holding us back?

A separate survey, also released in March by the American Heart Association (AHA), found that about 12 percent of American adults regularly practice healthy habits such as eating a healthy diet, exercising for at least 150 minutes a week and practicing recommended oral care (brushing and rinsing twice a day, and flossing once daily). In the survey, people who said they didn’t engage in healthy behaviors regularly cited a “lack of time” as the most common reason for not practicing those habits.

For many people, though, there is a disconnect between the amount of time they think it will take to exercise more or eat healthier, and the actual time commitment these behaviors require. AHA spokeswoman Tracy Stevens, MD, says that small changes you start working into your everyday life can lead to big improvements in your health.

“Whether it is simply adding a 30-minute brisk walk to your day, eating a few more fruits and vegetables with your meals, balancing your calories and physical activity to achieve a healthy body weight or creating routine oral care habits—it all contributes to an overall healthier lifestyle,” Stevens says.

Dr. Cho suggests that for some people, it’s a lack of information about the importance of these lifestyle choices, while for others, it may be a lack of motivation or self-discipline.

“Some patients are very proactive and others are not,” she observes. “However, it is crucial that we tell our patients, how important it is to control all their risk factors.”

With that said, however, Dr. Cho adds that smoking cessation may be the single biggest choice you can make to help achieve a longer life, and that it’s never too late to quit.

“It is critical that patients with cardiovascular disease quit smoking,” she says. “Also, blood pressure control is important.”

Getting Started

As Stevens says, committing to a healthier lifestyle can be done with just a few changes here and there at the beginning. Don’t think that you need to overhaul your life in one day or even one month. The key is just sticking with your healthier choices.

And Dr. Cho stresses the value of having some professional guidance to get you started and keep you on track.

“The most important thing is to ask for and then seek help,” she says. “I really believe that all patients with heart disease should have a good nutrition and exercise counseling to help them. We often think we know what healthy eating is but we really don’t. Also, doctors aren’t always the best resources when it comes to dietary and exercise counseling, so that is why it is important to seek out a nutritionist or dietitian with experience in working with heart patients. Exercise specialists who are knowledgeable about heart disease are also very helpful.”

And in case you think that your family history of cardiovascular disease has sentenced you to an unavoidable future of heart problems, Dr. Cho notes that previous research suggests that about 90 percent of heart disease is based on controllable risk factors and only 10 percent based on genetics.