July 5, 2000 — It really works! New research findings bolster what doctors and health care professionals have been saying for years: When done in combination, eating right, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting regular exercise can dramatically reduce a person’s risk of developing heart disease.
Reporting in TheNew England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers found that women who ate a healthy diet, exercised, drank moderate amounts of alcohol, did not smoke, and maintained a normal body weight were 80% less likely to develop heart disease than women who did not engage in these healthful behaviors.
Researcher Meir J. Stampfer, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, calls the effect of a healthy lifestyle on heart disease risk “astonishing.”
“The public health message is really that there are a lot of things that people can do on their own, without medication, that can lead to a profound reduction in heart disease risk, beyond that of what is achieved with medication for high blood pressure or cholesterol,” he tells WebMD.
The researchers identified several factors that put women at low risk of developing heart disease:
- Not smoking
- Not being overweight
- Drinking at least half an alcoholic drink per day (previous studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption — no more than one to two drinks per day — can decrease the risk of heart disease)
Exercising at least moderately for at least 30 minutes a day, which could include brisk walking
- Eating a healthy diet high in cereal fiber, fatty acids obtained from fish, and the vitamin folate and low in fast food, sweets, and other junk food
“The implication is that we could reduce heart disease rates by 80% if everybody shifted over to these low-risk behaviors,” Stampfer says. “That is over and above what we could achieve with drugs. And if we incorporate everything we know, like taking a daily aspirin, and apply it, we could reduce … heart disease to something close to zero.”
In fact, 82% of the heart attacks that occurred in the study participants resulted from their failure to lead such a healthy lifestyle.
“Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among U.S. men and women. The good news is that a healthy lifestyle can prevent the vast majority of this disease; the bad news is that so few Americans follow this sort of healthy lifestyle,” Stampfer says.
Only 3% of women in the study were in the low-risk category associated with health benefits.
The study results are part of the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study, which was established in 1976. When the study began, more than 120,000 U.S. nurses aged 30 to 55 answered questions assessing health and lifestyle factors. Every two years, the nurses complete follow-up questionnaires.
Over 14 years, researchers documented more than 1,100 cases of heart disease, including almost 300 deaths from the disease. The women who had heart attacks were less likely to lead healthy lifestyles than those who did not develop heart disease, the study found.
The No. 1 risk factor for heart disease was smoking, the study showed. Women who smoked 15 or more cigarettes a day had a fivefold higher risk of developing heart disease than nonsmokers. And women who smoked one to 14 cigarettes a day had three times the risk of developing heart disease. Overall, 41% of the heart attacks reported in the new study were directly attributable to cigarette smoking, Stampfer and colleagues report.
“This is excellent news for women,” says Harvey Hecht, MD, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac imaging at the Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix, who reviewed the study for WebMD.
“Heart disease in women is an underappreciated disease … which kills at least 500,000 women per year,” he says. “It is gratifying to see that relatively simple prevention measures can have such profound effects.”