Protect heart health to ward off other major diseases, study says

People with healthy hearts could spend up to a decade longer free of cancer, dementia and other major health conditions compared to those who do not look after their hearts, according to a new study of UK adults.

Adults who have a “high level of cardiovascular health” can expect to live a greater portion of their lives free from four major conditions – cancer, dementia, diabetes and heart disease, the research suggests.

Experts, led by academics from Tulane University in New Orleans in the US, examined information on 135,199 adults with an average age of 55 who are taking part in the UK Biobank study.

Their heart health was measured using a number of factors including their diet, physical activity levels, smoking status, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, their blood pressure, the amount of sleep they have and their body mass index (BMI) score.

Based on these factors, people involved in the study were split into three groups – those with low, moderate or high cardiovascular health.

Researchers found that 50-year-old men with the best cardiovascular health were likely to live 6.9 years longer free from the four major diseases compared to those with a low score.

Those with a moderate score – which made up the largest proportion of men involved in the study – were found to live four years longer disease-free, compared with those who had a low cardiovascular health score.

Women the same age with a high score can expect to live almost a decade (9.4 years) longer free from cancer, dementia, heart disease or diabetes, compared to those with a low score.

Those with a moderate score could expect to have 6.3 additional years free of disease compared to those with the poorest heart health, according to the study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

“In conclusion, this cohort study indicates that a high CVH (cardiovascular health) level is strongly associated with longer life expectancy, especially life expectancy free of major chronic
diseases in both men and women,” the authors wrote.

“These findings support the improvement in population health by promoting high CVH levels, which may also narrow health disparities associated with socioeconomic status.”

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This study shows how crucial good cardiovascular health in middle age is in determining our healthy life expectancy in later life.

“We know that health inequality during early and middle life is a big driver of a shorter healthy life, and this study shows that this is largely because of its impact on cardiovascular health.

“This study shows the vital importance of optimising cardiovascular health in our forties and fifties, especially amongst those who are socially disadvantaged.”

It comes as a separate study led by Imperial College London found that a number of reproductive factors in women could contribute to their risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers from Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute, University of Cambridge and Yale School of Public Health analysed genetic data linked to women’s age at first birth, their number of live births, their age at their first period, and their age at menopause.

The researchers were able to show a link between the genes that predict reproductive factors and the risk of a number of heart diseases.

Their findings, which have been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, include:

Earlier “genetically-predicted” age at first birth was linked to a higher risk of coronary artery disease, heart failure and stroke – but this could partly be explained by high body mass index, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.

Higher genetically-predicted number of live births increased risk for an abnormal heart rate, heart failure and stroke.

Those with genes that signposted that they started their periods at a younger age were more likely to suffer coronary artery disease and heart failure – though this could largely be explained by higher BMI scores.

Genetically predicted age at menopause was not linked to an increased risk of the heart problems studied.

Dr Maddalena Ardissino, lead author of the study, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, said: “Women are often mischaracterised as being at low risk for cardiovascular disease, leading to delays in diagnosis.

“Even when they are diagnosed, they tend to receive less targeted treatment than men.

“This study shows a clear link between reproductive factors and cardiovascular disease.

“This doesn’t mean that women should worry if they’ve had their period at a young age, or if they had an early first birth – our research shows that the additional risk of cardiovascular disease can be minimised if traditional risk factors like BMI and blood pressure are well-controlled.

“These findings highlight the need for doctors to monitor these risk factors closely in women and intervene where needed.”