To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, which investigates risk factors related to heart disease. Conducted in four U.S. communities in North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota and Maryland, this study followed more than 6,500 adults for more than two decades between 1987 and 2013. Adults were anywhere from 45–64 years old upon enrollment, and by the end of the study had aged to 67–91 years old.
During the study period, participants underwent five medical exams and completed questionnaires about their health and lifestyle. Based on survey results, researchers assigned participants with a health score using six key metrics—smoking status, physical activity, body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. These metrics were recently identified by the American Heart Association as being key to the prevention of heart disease. These factors have also been shown to reduce risk for heart failure—a chronic condition common in elderly adults.
Overall, researchers found that health scores were low among study participants and declined with age. However, better health scores were associated with lower risk for heart disease and better heart function. Improvements in health scores over the 26–year study were also associated with improved heart health in elderly adults.
The take-home message of this study, as authors explain, is that healthy lifestyle choices are important in all stages of life. Even as cardiovascular risk increases with age, healthy choices like not smoking and staying active continue to improve heart health as we get older. Addressing risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol helps significantly reduce risk for heart disease, and the collective impact of these steps promotes better health, even among the elderly.