(This article appeared previously on the website of the American Heart Association.)
Potentially dangerous artery problems considered common as people age may actually be avoided or delayed well into older adulthood, according to new research.
The risk for high blood pressure and increased blood vessel stiffness, which both increase the risk of heart disease, may be reduced with a healthy lifestyle, according to the study published May 30 in the journal Hypertension.
There’s a catch, though: It takes a lot of work.
“What we are showing is that, even in a population acculturated to a Western lifestyle, it is possible to maintain a healthy vasculature over age 70. But it is extremely challenging,” said study author Dr. Teemu J. Niiranen, a research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine.
Softer Arteries, Better Health
The researchers defined healthy vascular aging as absence of high blood pressure and having vascular stiffness of the arteries of a person 30 years or younger.
Most importantly, having a low body mass index and being free of diabetes seemed to be associated with healthier arteries into old age.
In a study of nearly 3,200 people ages 50 and older from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found 566 individuals, or nearly 18 percent, met the requirements for healthy vascular aging. Most were in the youngest group, ages 50 to 59, where about 30 percent had the measures of healthy vascular aging. Among those 70 and older, only 1 percent had the soft arteries of a 30-something.
“People with healthy vascular aging were at a 55 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Those results are mainly a result of the softness of their arteries,” Niiranen said.
Lifestyle Factors Are Key
The researchers found women were more likely than men to have healthy vascular aging, but lifestyle factors played a predominant role.
Most importantly, having a low body mass index and being free of diabetes seemed to be associated with healthier arteries into old age. Other factors, including use of lipid-lowering drugs, also made a difference.
In essence, the health goals the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7 can impact aging of the blood vessels, Niiranen said.
Goals for a Healthier Life
The components of Life’s Simple 7 include fasting blood glucose, cholesterol, resting blood pressure, body mass index, smoking status, diet quality and physical activity.
When the researchers studied Life’s Simple 7’s impact on vascular health, they found those who met six of the seven Life’s Simple 7 goals were 10 times more likely to achieve healthy vascular aging, compared to people in the study who didn’t achieve any of the seven or attained only one.
“That is a very striking odds ratio. Those people are also very rare,” Niiranen said.
Niiranen noted studies have found that blood pressure levels and arterial stiffness in indigenous populations that traditionally lead hunter-gatherer lifestyles tend to increase with levels of Western acculturation and urbanization.
More Than Just How We Live?
Other researchers say lifestyle isn’t the whole story on vascular aging.
Dr. Peter M. Nilsson, professor of clinical cardiovascular research at Lund University in Sweden who studies vascular aging, said his research suggests vascular aging is a reflection of human aging and genetics.
Vascular aging is programmed by genetics and factors in early life, but also influenced by lifestyle and adverse social factors, like stress and disease — “especially hyperglycemia and hypertension,” Nilsson said. “I support the idea that some people practicing a healthy lifestyle may help to protect their arteries.”
“Living a heart healthy life and maintaining normal blood pressure go a long way to keep vasculature function strong, but we can’t stop the aging process,” said Dr. Timothy J. Gardner, past president of the American Heart Association and medical director for heart and vascular health at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del.
“As the percentage of elderly individuals has increased, we are seeing many more individuals in their 70s and 80s who have excellent heart health despite their advanced ages,” Gardner said. “These are people who have lived heart-healthy lives. They may not have the physical scope of 20-year-olds, but their heart function and blood pressure may be almost as good as younger people.”
Paying for Bad Habits
Gardner has also seen plenty who pay a heavy price for eating poorly, gaining too much weight, being physically inactive and smoking cigarettes.
“These bad life habits lead to adult-onset diabetes and high blood pressure – things that lead to premature heart disease in their 50s and 60s, and sometimes even earlier in life,” he said.
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