On November 15, 2010, the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2010 featured presentations of the results of two studies which indicate that lifestyle has a greater impact on whether one will develop cardiovascular disease than being genetically predisposed to acquire the disease.
In the first study, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine evaluated data from 2,336 men and women aged 18 to 30 upon enrollment in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults longitudinal study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Diet, physical activity, alcohol intake, smoking status, weight, and blood pressure and glucose levels were assessed at the beginning of the study and at the seventh and twentieth years of follow-up.
Among participants who maintained five healthy lifestyle factors (having a healthy body mass index, limiting alcohol consumption, consuming healthy amounts of potassium, calcium and fiber and a low intake of saturated fat; participating in regular exercise, and never smoking) 60 percent had a low risk profile for cardiovascular disease after 20 years. That percentage dropped to 37 percent for those who had four factors, 30 percent for three factors, 17 percent for two and 6 percent for one or none. Separate analyses for men, women, Caucasians and African-Americans turned up similar findings.
The second study, also conducted at Northwestern University, analyzed three generations of families enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study. The researchers determined that the majority of cardiovascular disease that developed in the subjects was caused by lifestyle factors, with only a small proportion due to heredity. “What you do and how you live is going to have a larger impact on whether you are in ideal cardiovascular health than your genes or how you were raised," lead author and Feinberg School postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine Norrina Allen concluded.
“Health behaviors can trump a lot of your genetics,” noted Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, who is the chair and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern Medicine and a cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “This research shows people have control over their heart health. The earlier they start making healthy choices, the more likely they are to maintain a low-risk profile for heart disease.”
“We really need to encourage individuals to improve their behavior and lifestyle and create a public health environment so people can make healthy choices,” he added. “We need to make it possible for people to walk more and safely in their neighborhoods and buy fresh affordable fruit and vegetables in the local grocery store. We need physical activity back in schools, widely applied indoor smoking bans and reduced sodium content in the processed foods we eat. We also need to educate people to reduce their calorie intake. It’s a partnership between individuals making behavior changes but also public health changes that will improve the environment and allow people to make those healthy choices.”