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Heart Disease: Genes Are No Match for a Healthy Lifestyle

Even if heart disease runs in your family, a healthy lifestyle can still do a lot to lessen your risk, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that certain healthy lifestyle factors, like not smoking and getting regular exercise, were associated with a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease in people with high genetic risk. The study included data from three cohort studies, which followed their subjects over a long period of time, and one cross-sectional study, which collected data from its subjects at one point in time. Together, these studies included 55,685 people, ages 47 to 65. Researchers selected the participants based on the availability of genetic and lifestyle data. They analyzed the lifestyle data for four healthy lifestyle attributes: not smoking, avoiding obesity (maintaining a body mass index [BMI] under 30), exercising at least once a week, and eating a healthy diet pattern (high in fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, and low in processed meats, red meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages; in one study, also low in sodium and trans-fats). In addition, they analyzed the participants’ DNA for markers associated with coronary heart disease. After controlling for other factors, including age, gender, and education level, the researchers found that:

  • Across the three cohort studies, people at a high genetic risk for coronary heart disease were 91% more likely to have a coronary event during an average of 18.8–20.5 years of follow-up than people at a low genetic risk.
  • However, regardless of genetic risk, people whose lifestyles included at least three of the four designated healthy attributes were 45 to 47% less likely to develop heart disease than those with one or no healthy lifestyle attribute.
  • Those with one or no healthy lifestyle attribute were more likely to have hypertension, diabetes, and a higher BMI at the beginning of the studies than those who had three or more healthy lifestyle attributes.
  • Furthermore, the cross-sectional study found that, within each genetic risk group, a healthy lifestyle pattern was associated with less coronary artery calcification.

These findings suggest that your lifestyle choices could help mitigate certain genetic cards that you’ve been dealt. But the results don’t just apply to those at high genetic risk for heart disease; they also highlight the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for people at any level of genetic risk. So, get out and exercise, eat right, and if you smoke, try to quit—your heart will thank you.

Source: New England Journal of Medicine

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