Improving habits has a positive impact on heart health

Continuing to encourage patients to follow healthy habits is a must. Habits acquired in the early 20s demonstrably affect signs for coronary atherosclerosis in the decades that follow, according to a study published in the July 1 issue of Circulation. Loss of those habits had a marked effect as well.

The CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study followed 3,538 individuals, reviewing responses to questions about healthy behaviors at baseline and year 20. The five healthy lifestyle factors they assessed included physical activity, healthy diet, smoking status, body mass index (BMI) and level of alcohol consumption.

Only 8 percent of all participants had all five healthy habits at year 0. Thirty-six percent of the study group reported three healthy habits at the start. At the end of the 20-year span, 10 percent of the study group maintained a high level of healthy habits in all five areas.

After checking coronary artery calcium and carotid artery intima-media thickness at year 20, researchers found correlations between the maintenance, loss or adoption of a number of these healthy behavior points. The odds of detectable carotid artery calcium decreased by 15 percent for each positively scored point on the healthy behavior scale.

A similar linear effect was seen on the amount of carotid artery intima-media thickness. They found that the greatest effect on coronary artery calcium, carotid artery intima-media thickness and the risks for development of these markers occurred through changes in BMI and smoking status.

Patients who smoke, have a high BMI, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, or high alcohol consumption still can benefit by altering their habits. Lead investigator and preventative medicine specialist Bonnie Spring, PhD, of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a press release, "You're not doomed if you've hit young adulthood and acquired some bad habits. You can still make a change and it will have a benefit for your heart."

While heavy smoking increased odds of having markers for coronary atherosclerosis, not smoking or quitting did decrease them, as did lowering BMI. Changing to a healthy diet affected odds in the top 80 percent. Alcohol consumption and physical activity showed more effect when paired with other habits. Of the participants who started with poor habits, 25 percent made changes on their own that had impact on their cardiac health.

“Adulthood isn't a 'safe period' when one can abandon healthy habits without doing damage to the heart,” Spring et al wrote. “A healthy lifestyle requires upkeep to be maintained.”

Improvements to diet, increasing physical activity to 30 minutes or more each day for five or more days a week, lowering BMI, reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are still the most positive suggestions to provide for improving patients’ potential heart outcomes.