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Nov 15, 2016

Healthy Lifestyle Helps Offset Genetic Risk for Heart Disease

For patients with high genetic risk for heart disease, healthy lifestyle choices nearly cut risk in half, finds study.

For adults with a high genetic risk for heart disease, healthy lifestyle choices help cut cardiovascular risk in half, based on results of a recent analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The analysis included four different studies, which contained genetic and lifestyle information on more than 55,600 adults. The goal was to assess the impact of both genetic risk and lifestyle choices on risk for heart disease—the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.

Using up to 50 genetic markers associated with heart disease, researchers divided participants into four different groups, ranging from low to high genetic risk. After tracking outcomes on participants for roughly 19–21 years, researchers found that participants with the highest genetic risk had 91% greater risk for heart events than those with the lowest risk. Heart events included heart attacks, heart-related deaths, and procedures needed to restore blood flow to the heart.

The good news, however, is that maintaining a healthy lifestyle helps significantly offset increased genetic risk. In this study, researchers focused on four key components of a healthy lifestyle, including no smoking, no obesity, regular physical activity and a healthy diet. Not surprisingly, participants with a healthier lifestyle had significantly lower risk for heart events than those with fewer healthy lifestyle factors, regardless of genetic risk. But among participants at high genetic risk, having at least three healthy lifestyle factors was associated with 46% lower risk for heart events compared to those with no or one healthy lifestyle factors.

Authors also note that based on heart imaging used in one study, a healthy lifestyle was associated with significantly less coronary artery calcification within participants in each risk category. That means that even in patients with high genetic risk, a healthy lifestyle translated to healthier arteries.

According to authors, findings highlight the importance of healthy lifestyle choices, especially for adults with a family history of heart disease. While there are risk factors for heart disease that we can’t change, like age and family history, this study suggests that simple lifestyle choices can help offset family history and genetic risk. By eating healthy, staying active, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, adults with high genetic risk for heart disease may help cut their risk in half.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Am I at risk for heart disease?
  • To estimate a patient’s risk for heart disease, doctors take into account a number of factors such as age, gender, blood pressure, cholesterol, and family history. Using this information, doctors can estimate whether a patient is considered to be at low, medium or high risk for heart disease. Online tools are also available to help patients estimate their risk for heart disease.

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