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Heart-healthy habits extend lifespan

by Kirstin Fawcett
Nov 08, 2012


Courtesy of Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Dr. John T. Wilkins led the long-term Northwestern Medicine study that predicted lifetime risk factor levels for heart disease.

Put down the cigarette and pick up some dumbbells. A new long-term medical study from Northwestern Medicine suggests that individuals with healthy hearts in middle age live up to 14 years longer than peers with two or more cardiovascular risks.

The research, published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed key long-term parameters in which approximately 50,000 adults ages 45 and up were monitored for up to 50 years via medical records and clinical follow-ups.

Led by Dr. John T. Wilkins, researchers collected individuals’ history on risk factors involving blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes and smoking status. While all subjects entered the study free of cardiovascular disease, data showed that people who maintained healthy hearts into middle age lived 14 years longer on average than their peers with risk factors. 

“Health is earned, not given. We all have our own genetic risk… But we can improve and change a lot of our…self-induced risk – choice related or lifestyle-related. That’s one of the things about the study I think is important,” said Dr. Ari Levy, a general internist at University of Chicago Medical School.

Although doctors have long stressed to patients the importance of a healthy lifestyle, this study was the first long-term study estimating individuals’ lifetime risk for total cardiovascular disease. Wilkins is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and a cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, partners in Northwestern Medicine. 

Risk does rise with age, however, according to the study. By age 55, men with and optimal risk factor profile – non-smokers without diabetes, high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol – had gained a 40 percent lifetime risk of developing heart disease, heart failure or stroke.

Results were comparable to those relating to the study’s 55-year-old female subjects, whose overall lifetime risk rose 30 percent.

Still, those without elevated or major risk factors for cardiovascular disease lived longer than the rest of the group. The study emphasized the prominent role that diet, exercise and stress management played in maintaining heart health and prolonging life span.

"And what this study is looking at are ways of better calculating what your lifetime risk of heart disease would be," Sorrentino said. "We often talk about 10-year risk but there haven't been enough [long-term] studies."