Why Your Healthy Habits May Not Protect Your Heart

You do everything to protect your ticker—watch your weight, control your blood pressure, manage cholesterol—but that doesn't mean you're completely in the clear for heart disease. A new study says that even healthy hearts may be at risk for disease.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that even middle-aged adults who have seemingly "optimal" heart health may be at risk for heart disease later in life.

Four in 10 men and 3 in 10 women who had normal blood pressure, cholesterol, didn't smoke, or have diabetes at age 55 developed cardiovascular diseases later in life. That's the bad news, but the good news is that people with "optimal" heart health developed heart disease significantly later (between 8 and 14 years) than those who had risk facts for heart disease at age 45.

The researchers reviewed five large population studies, including the Framingham Heart Study, which was conducted between 1964 and 2008. Participants did not have cardiovascular disease at the study's start.

Between two and eight percent of participants, depending on the age group considered, were in optimal heart health. In contrast, more than half of participants at any age had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Overall, about 60 percent of men and 56 percent of women would develop cardiovascular disease at some point after age 55. For those who were in optimal heart health at age 55, 40 percent of men and 30 percent of women would develop the disease.

Achieving Optimal Heart Health

The American Heart Association (AHA) considers several factors when determining what makes a healthy heart. People with optimal heart health don't have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. They're not overweight, obese, or underweight. They don't smoke. They exercise and eat five or more servings of fruits and veggies every day. Why isn't that enough to keep your heart healthy? It's not exactly clear why these healthy habits don't always protect the heart, but environmental, genetic, and aging factors may play a role.

What's particularly daunting is that only about three percent of Americans have optimal heart health, while ten percent have poor heart health according to the AHA. That means most of us are somewhere in the middle. While some factors are beyond your control, there are things you can do to improve heart health:

  • Keep an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride, and glucose levels
  • Know your family history and let your doctor know if anyone has heart disease
  • Watch your weight
  • Get 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, every day.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and veggies, healthy fats, lean proteins, dairy products, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
  • Don't smoke
  • Don't drink alcohol in excess
  • Reduce stress
  • Get plenty of sleep

By following all these commonsense guidelines, you increase the odds of having optimal heart health.

Dennis Bley, DO, reviewed this article.




American Heart Association
Heart Health Screenings

Journal of the American Medical Association
Lifetime Risk and Years Lived Free of Total Cardiovascular Disease
John T. Wilkins, MD, MS; Hongyan Ning, MD, MS; Jarett Berry, MD, MS; Lihui Zhao, PhD; Alan R. Dyer, PhD; Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM
JAMA. 2012;308(17):1795-1801. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.14312.