Healthy Lifestyle, not Genes Influence Heart Disease Risk

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Scientists say it’s not genes, but rather a healthy lifestyle that influences heart disease risk factors, which starts in young adulthood. Researchers explain making healthy choices early to thwart heart disease include five basic lifestyle choices.

Five Lifestyle Choices Trump Genes to Keep Heart Disease at Bay

According to Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., chair and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a staff cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, “Health behaviors can trump a lot of your genetics.” The five lifestyle choices that ensure heart health include not smoking, low or no alcohol intake, weight control, physical activity and consuming a healthy diet.

Two studies, presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2010 confirm it’s possible for young adults to maintain heart health into mid-life by following the five healthy lifestyle choices.“This research shows people have control over their heart health. The earlier they start making healthy choices, the more likely they are to maintain a low-risk profile for heart disease.”

The first study showed why healthy young adults often wind up with high blood pressure and cholesterol and become overweight. It’s simply by not following the recommended lifestyle choices that puts them at high risk when they reach middle –age.

“This means it is very important to adopt a healthy lifestyle at a younger age, because it will impact you later on,” said Kiang Liu, lead author of the study and a professor of preventive medicine at the Feinberg School.


Study participants were part of the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) multi-center longitudinal study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute that followed 18 to 30 year olds, both black and white, for 20 years and included 2336 subjects.

After 20 years, the prevalence of low cholesterol, low blood pressure, absence of smoking, diabetes, regular physical activity, a healthy diet and healthy weight was 60 percent among those who followed all five healthy lifestyle factors. Participants who follow four of the lifestyle factors had a 37 percent prevalence of risk factors for heart disease, 30 percent for three factors, 17 percent for two and 6 percent for one or zero. The results were similar for whites, blacks, men and women.

The second research presentation, from the Framingham Heart Study, found a small prevalence of hereditary risk factors for heart disease. The researchers looked at the heart health of 3 generations of families, including 7,535 people at age 40 and a separate group of 8,920 people at age 50.

The solution for curbing heart disease according to Dr. Lloyd-Jones is making it “possible for people to walk more and safely in their neighborhoods and buy fresh affordable fruit and vegetables in the local grocery store. We need physical activity back in schools, widely applied indoor smoking bans and reduced sodium content in the processed foods we eat. We also need to educate people to reduce their calorie intake. It’s a partnership between individuals making behavior changes but also public health changes that will improve the environment and allow people to make those healthy choices.”

The findings are important from a public health perspective that seems to have reached a tipping point. The benefits of making healthy lifestyle choices in young adulthood will also save Medicare dollars in addition to improving quality of life and longevity. The two studies show healthy lifestyle choices, not genes, influence the risk of heart disease. The combination of public health policy change and healthier ifestyle choices, starting in young adulthood are sorely needed, shown by the studies.

Northwestern University