Heart Health - Nature and Nurture

Heart Health - Nature and Nurture

It's widely accepted that genetics play a part in our overall health, but new research proves that it doesn't entirely determine our destiny. While we can't control what we inherit, we can control what we do.

Northwestern University's Department of Preventive Medicine monitored the effect a healthy lifestyle — including diet — has on future cardiovascular wellness. The scientific findings suggest our lifestyle has more of an impact on cardiovascular health than previously thought. It's not simply our genes, but how we live — especially as young adults — that affects our heart disease risk.1

What we learned

Many Americans have a low cardiovascular disease risk profile (as defined by the American Heart Association) as young adults. Yet by the time they reach middle age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess weight — factors that move them into the high-risk category — have materialized.1 Can this trend be reversed?

To help find an answer, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute sponsored the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, where more than 2,300 young adults were assessed for these healthy lifestyle factors:

  • Healthy diet
  • Regular physical activity
  • Optimal weight
  • Not smoking
  • No or low alcohol intake

The CARDIA study was the first of its kind to measure how lifestyle choices impact heart health, assessing participants from young adulthood to middle age over a 20-year period. In that time, participants proved our lifestyle choices directly contribute to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in middle age.1 And a lower risk for heart disease in middle-age puts you at lower risk as you age.

More is better

Study participants showed that while practicing just two of the healthy habits decreased their risk, the benefits increased greatly as more healthy factors were added.1

Participants who followed:

  • Two of the healthy lifestyle factors had a 15% lower risk for heart disease.
  • Three of the healthy lifestyle factors had a 30% lower risk for heart disease.
  • All five of the healthy lifestyle factors had a 60% lower risk for heart disease.

You can make simple changes toward a healthy lifestyle at any point in your life. Even starting small — a daily walk around the neighborhood, choosing more whole fruits and vegetables, going easy on the saltshaker — can have an impact on longevity and quality of life. Maintaining a low-risk lifestyle with healthy food choices into middle age can decrease future healthcare costs and keep you active and engaged with your family and friends for a longer time.

1 Liu K, Daviglus ML, Loria CM. Healthy Lifestyle Through Young Adulthood and the Presence of Low Cardiovascular Disease Risk Profile in Middle Age. Circulation.2012; 125: 996-1004

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