People with no major heart disease risk factors in middle age stay healthy and live longer, according to a 40-year study.
Compared to those who had two or more high risk factors in middle age, those who reached age 65 without a chronic illness lived an average 3.9 years longer and survived 4.5 years longer before developing a chronic illness, researchers found. They also spent 22 percent fewer of their senior years with a chronic illness — 39 percent compared to 50 percent — and saved almost $18,000 in Medicare costs.
The study, reported in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, is the first to analyze the impact of heart health in middle age on the duration of illness later in life.
“Health professionals need to let young adults know that maintaining or adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle makes it more likely that you’ll live longer and still be healthy enough to do the things you love to do when you’re older,” said Norrina Allen, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Researchers examined data from the Chicago Health Association study, which included initial health assessments in the late 1960s/early 1970s and has followed participants on an ongoing basis using Medicare health records. Researchers determined how many participants had favorable factors such as non-smokers, free of diabetes, normal weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels versus those with elevated risk factors or high risk factors.
Looking solely at heart disease in 18,714 participants who reached age 65 without having a heart attack, stroke or congestive heart failure, those with all favorable risk factors lived 6.9 years longer without heart disease and spent 46.5 percent fewer of their senior years with heart disease.
“We need to think about cardiovascular health at all stages of life,” Allen said. “The small proportion of participants with favorable levels in their 40s is a call for all of us to maintain or adopt healthy lifestyles earlier in life. But risk factors and their effects accumulate over time, so even if you have risks it’s never too late to reduce their impact on your later health by exercising, eating right, and treating your high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.”
The data is even more grim than a 2011-12 national survey suggesting only 8.9 percent of U.S. adults age 40-59 had five or more “ideal” health factors, according to the AHA’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2017 Update.
The AHA created My Life Check to educate the public on improving health by aiming to achieve seven health measures called Life’s Simple 7. It’s a composite measure of seven modifiable heart-healthy factors: cigarette smoking, physical activity, diet, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.