Health & Wellness

7 health habits that can cut your heart risk in half

Imagine you can't perform the simplest of tasks, like climbing the stairs or putting away the groceries. That’s the reality for many of the nearly six million Americans who have been diagnosed with heart failure, the inability of the heart to effectively pump blood and oxygen to other organs.

But there is new hope in preventing this too-often devastating problem and the solution may be simpler than you think, according to a study in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation: Heart Failure.

It's "Life’s Simple 7", a checklist of seven evidence-based recommendations designed to help individuals improve their heart health. Previous research has shown these measures not only reduce heart disease, but also other conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, pneumonia and even certain cancers.

"Life’s Simple 7" includes questions about:

Cholesterol

Cholesterol contributes to plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke.

Weight

Carrying extra pounds places a burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels and skeleton. Losing pounds can improve overall well-being and lower blood pressure, among other metabolic measures.

Exercise

Daily physical activity improves heart health.

Blood sugar

Keep that measure in check to avoid diabetes.

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Smoking habit

Smoking damages the heart and lungs.

Nutrition

A healthy diet fights cardiovascular disease.

Go here to find out your Life’s Simple 7 score and recommendations.

In this new study, researchers wanted to determine if there was an association between these Simple 7 heart-health measures and the onset of heart failure.

Although heart failure can be managed, there is still a “. . . dramatically poor prognosis,” says Matthew Nayor, M.D., lead author of the study, adding that heart failure causes include prior heart attack, diabetes, and high blood pressure as well as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

But “. . . a healthy lifestyle and potentially preventing heart failure has been under-emphasized,” adds Nayor, a cardiology fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The research team developed a Cardiovascular Health Score for the study’s 3,201 participants, all of whom were followed for slightly more than 12 years. A score of “0” on a measure indicated poor status, while a score of “2” was ideal. A “1” was considered intermediate.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found those individuals who scored in the middle third of the group, cut their risk of heart failure nearly in half compared to those in the bottom third. Those in the top third reduced their risk even more.

However, you didn’t need to be the heart-healthiest participant to see some benefit. The data show that for each one-point higher cardiovascular health score (say moving from a “1” to a “2”) there was a 23 percent lower risk of developing heart failure.

That finding was “. . . a bit of a surprise,” says Nayor, who is also a research fellow at the Framingham Heart Study. “We expected a plateau.”

Because heart failure can be so life altering and dire, the study’s results are very powerful, says cardiologist Clyde Yancy, M.D., former president of the American Heart Association and chief of cardiology at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago.

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution to improve your health, try Life’s Simple 7, suggests Yancy, a professor of medicine at Northwestern.

And don’t feel discouraged if you have some work to do since research shows that every little bit can help. “Heart disease and heart failure is not inevitable,” he says.

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