Heart Health

04 May 2012

Even at higher genetic heart risk, lifestyle changes help

A new study helps confirm that lifestyle also matters for people who have a genetically increased risk of premature heart disease.


A new study helps confirm that lifestyle also matters for people who have a genetically increased risk of premature heart disease.

The study, reported in the American Journal of Cardiology, focused on men with at least one parent who had a heart attack before the age of 55. Those with a healthier lifestyle were less likely to develop heart failure over two decades of follow-up.

"Our study gives more incentive to follow what's generally recommended for lowering the risk of heart attack," lead researcher Dr Owais Khawaja, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, said.

How the study was done

The findings are based on data from the Physicians' Health Study, which has followed more than 20,000 US male doctors since the 1980s. Just over 1,100 men had a parent with a premature heart attack.

Based on responses to a survey at baseline, the men were given a "good" lifestyle score if they followed at least three of four healthy habits: exercising at least once a week, not smoking, keeping a normal weight and drinking alcohol weekly (rather than more heavily or infrequently).

During an average follow-up of nearly 22 years, 190 men suffered a heart attack and subsequent heart failure, including 25 of the men with parents affected by early heart disease.

Those men were at greater risk compared with men without such a family history. But of the genetically at-risk men with a "good" lifestyle score, the rate of heart attack followed by heart failure was about seven cases per 10,000 men each year, compared to 14 cases per 10,000 among at-risk men with a "poor" lifestyle score.

Something can be done

Even with a healthy lifestyle, genetically at-risk men were more likely to develop heart failure than their peers without a risky family history.

Health-conscious men with no genetic risk were diagnosed with heart failure after myocardial infarction at a rate of three cases per 10,000 each year. The rate for men with no risky family history but "poor" lifestyle score was between five and six cases per 10,000.

The findings suggest that people who are genetically vulnerable to heart disease can still do something about it.

"Even if the genetic profile is not favourable," Dr Khawaja said, "one can still attenuate the risk by following a healthy lifestyle pattern."

(Amy Norton, Reuters Health, May 2012) 

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