Seven highly effective habits for preventing heart disease

Seven highly effective habits for preventing heart disease

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The lifetime risk of heart disease can be reduced to less than 1 percent

What if I told you that you could practically eliminate your chances of getting heart disease? I was at a Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital conference last week in Boston where several seminars addressed this very topic. I had to share the good news with you.

The risk of mortality from heart disease has decreased by 30 percent over the last few decades, which is very impressive (;

However, before we start celebrating, it is still the No. 1 cause of death in the United States; in 2008, heart disease was responsible for one in four deaths (National Center for Health Statistics. 2011).

The seven factors

There are two recent studies that look at the reduction in risk factors for heart disease. If we reduce the seven key modifiable risk factors, the chance of heart disease goes down to about 1 percent. These seven factors are smoking, body mass index (goal BMI of less than 25 kg/m2), physical activity (at least 150 minutes of moderate activity weekly), diet (at least similar to the DASH diet), cholesterol (total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dl without medication), blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg without medication) and blood glucose (fasting glucose less than 100 without medication).

So what did the researchers find?

In one recent study, researchers found that we are doing best with smoking cessation (Circulation. 2012;125(1):45-56). The prevalence of nonsmoking ranged from 60 percent to 90 percent, depending on demographics.

On the other hand, healthy diet scores were not very good; from 0.2 percent to 2.6 percent of participants have achieved ideal levels. Obviously, diet is an area that needs attention. This observational study involved 14,515 participants who were at least 20 years old. The authors garnered their results from NHANES data from 2003 through 2008.

How many participants actually reached all seven goals? About 1 percent. This means we have the ability to alter our history of heart disease dramatically. There is a dose-response curve. In other words, there is a direct relationship between the effort you apply to attain these goals and the outcomes of reduced risk.

In the other study, those who had an optimal risk factor profile at age 55 were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who had two or more risk factors. These differences were maintained at least through the age of 80 (N Engl J Med 2012; 366:321-329). The lifetime risk of fatal heart disease or a nonfatal heart attack in the optimal group was less than 1 percent for women and 3.6 percent for men.

In terms of sex differences, men were 10 times less likely and women were 18 times less likely to die from heart disease if they were in the optimal risk-stratification group. This was a meta-analysis (a group of 18 observational studies) with more than 250,000 participants.

Dietary approaches

The good news is that there are several diets that have shown dramatic results in preventing and treating heart disease, such as the Ornish, DASH, Mediterranean-type and Esselstyn diets. These diets all have one thing in common: they rely on nutrient-dense, plant-based foods. As I wrote in my March 1 article, “Heart attacks and women: There is a difference,” both the Ornish and the Esselstyn diets showed reversal of atherosclerosis (JAMA. 1998;280(23):2001-2007; J Fam Pract. 1995;41(6):560-8) and, as we know, atherosclerosis (plaques in the arteries) is the foundation for heart disease.

Exercise affect

For the most beneficial effects on preventing heart disease, both the American College of Sports Medicine and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that most Americans get at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise five times a week, for a total of 150 minutes, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week (Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(7):1334-59).

Moderate aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, as demonstrated in the Women’s Health Initiative, a large observational study. This study showed a 28 percent to 53 percent reduction in heart disease risk in women ages 50 to 79 (N Engl J Med 2002; 347:716-725). Resistance training is also very important. The Health Professionals Follow-up Study showed at least 30 minutes a week resulted in a 23 percent risk reduction for heart disease and running for only 60 minutes resulted in a 42 percent risk reduction (JAMA. 2002;288(16):1994-2000).

Interestingly, although medications may be important for people who have high levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, they do not get you to the goal of achieving lowest-risk stratification. Lifestyle modification is the only way to approach ideal cardiovascular health. Thus, if we worked on these factors to attain the appropriate levels, this disease would no longer be on the top 5 list for highest incidence and mortality rates.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website and/or consult your personal physician.