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Jul 11, 2019

Healthy Arteries are Linked to Better Heart Function in Middle Age

Developing heart-healthy habits as a young adult helps keep your heart strong in middle age.

Reducing cardiovascular risk factors in your 20s protects the heart in middle age, based on a study that linked calcification of the arteries to poorer heart function later in life. Findings were recently published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging and highlight the importance of a heart-healthy lifestyle, particularly in early adulthood.

Known as the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults), this study performed heart imaging on more than 3,000 young and healthy adults as they aged. The goal was to see how changes in calcification in the heart’s arteries, which is a known risk factor for heart events, impacts the heart’s structure and function.

Ultimately, researchers found that individuals free of coronary artery calcium in young adulthood had stronger, healthier hearts by middle age. Findings also showed that higher increases in calcium build-up over the study period were associated with greater damage to the heart’s structure and function.

The study included 3,189 healthy young adults who were followed from the 1980s through 2011. Participants were between 18 and 30 years old and free of heart disease when they enrolled.

Over the course of the study, participants underwent two types of heart imaging to track changes in the heart’s structure and function. The first type of imaging called computerized tomography, or CT scan, measured coronary artery calcium, which is the build-up of calcium in the heart’s arteries. The second type of imaging was echocardiography, which looked at the heart’s structure and function. Both tests were repeated at 15 and 25 years to compare changes in results.

Researchers report that by the time participants were 50 years old, nearly three-quarters of participants had no signs of coronary artery calcium. These individuals were most likely to have a healthy heart structure and function based on echocardiography imaging.

Individuals with calcium build-up based on their first CT scan, however, had poorer heart structure and function by the time they reached their 50s. Those who developed calcium between the first and second scans also had reduced heart function, especially among black participants.

What findings show, according to authors, is the importance of promoting a healthy heart and arteries early in life. Healthy choices help prevent the build-up of coronary artery calcium, which is a warning sign for heart disease and increases risk for life-threatening heart events. A healthy lifestyle may also help protect the heart’s function and structure, as this study shows.

As a result, authors stress the importance of staying active, eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight. Experts also encourage strict management of any risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which are known to increase risk for heart disease. Together, these steps can help reduce risk for heart disease and maintain a healthy, strong heart throughout adulthood.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is coronary artery calcification?
  • Coronary artery calcification (CAC) is the buildup of calcium in the arteries, which can cause blood vessels to narrow and lead to the development of heart disease.
  • How is CAC detected?

  • CAC is detected using a special X-ray called a cardiac computed tomography (CT) scan, which can find build-up of calcium on the walls of the arteries. 

Infographic: Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

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