Four Lifestyle Factors that Can Save Your Life
Four lifestyle factors can have a considerable effect on heart health and longevity, according to a large, multicenter study led by Johns Hopkins University researchers.
It is the first study to find a link between practicing “low-risk” lifestyle factors such as not smoking and prevention of early signs of heart disease.
The lifestyle factors are:
- getting regular exercise
- eating a Mediterranean-style diet
- keeping a normal weight
- and not smoking
These factors not only protect against coronary heart disease — or a buildup of calcium deposits in the heart arteries — but they reduce the chance of death from all causes by 80 percent in study participants who were studied over eight years.
First Study to Find Association
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to find a protective association between low-risk lifestyle factors and early signs of vascular disease, coronary heart disease and death, in a single longitudinal evaluation,” says Haitham Ahmed, M.D., M.P.H., the study’s lead author who is an internal medicine resident with the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins.
The researchers looked at more than 6,200 women and men, ages 44 to 84, of all races and backgrounds. They followed participants for an average of 7.6 years, and they were questioned throughout the study about their diet, exercise, and smoking status. Researchers also checked their body mass index to see if they were overweight or obese. Participants did not have a diagnosis of heart disease when they were enrolled.
“We evaluated data on more than 6,200 men and women, age 44-84, from white, African-American, Hispanic and Chinese backgrounds. All were followed for an average of 7.6 years. Those who adopted all four healthy behaviors had an 80 percent lower death rate over that time period compared to participants with none of the healthy behaviors” says Ahmed.
Participants Screened at Start of Study
At the beginning of the study, all participants had coronary calcium screening using computed tomography (a CT scan) to check for early signs of calcium deposits in their heart arteries, which are known to contribute to heart attack risk. Throughout the study, researchers kept track of participants who had experiences a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest, chest pain, angioplasty, or death due to heart disease or other causes.
The researchers developed a lifestyle score for each of the participants, ranging from 0 (least healthy) to 4 (healthiest), based on their diet, BMI, amount of regular moderate-intensity physical activity, and smoking status. Only two percent, or 129 participants, satisfied all four healthy lifestyle criteria.
“Of all the lifestyle factors, we found that smoking avoidance played the largest role in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease and mortality,” says Roger Blumenthal, MD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, director of the Ciccarone Center and senior author of the study. “In fact, smokers who adopted two or more of the healthy behaviors still had lower survival rates after 7.6 years than did nonsmokers who were sedentary and obese.”
AHA Recommendations Warranted
Blumenthal says the findings “bolster recent recommendations by the American Heart Association, which call for maintaining a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and fish, keeping a BMI of less than 25, being physically active and not smoking.”
The researchers emphasize that their study shows the importance of healthy lifestyle habits not just for reducing the risk of heart disease, but also for preventing mortality from all causes.
“While there are risk factors that people can’t control, such as their family history and age,” says Ahmed, “these lifestyle measures are things that people can change and consequently make a big difference in their health. That’s why we think this is so important.”