Embracing a Healthier Lifestyle At Age 20 Can Mean Major Benefits For the Heart At Age 40

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Enjoy the benefits of starting a healthy lifestyle early.

The scientists, from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, focused on five key lifestyle factors:

  • Not smoking
  • Not being overweight
  • Low alcohol intake
  • Being physically active (exercising at least 30 minutes daily)
  • Following a diet low in fat and high in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are naturally rich in fiber, potassium, calcium, and other nutrients (a diet similar to the Pritikin Eating Plan)

Typical American lifestyles

At the start of the study, most of the participants, all enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, were leading a typically American life:  not much exercise and too much fast food, sodas, and other fatty, sugary, salty, and highly processed foods. Fewer than 10% reported that they were following all five healthy behaviors.

But over the next several years, 25% of the young men and women did in fact make healthy lifestyle changes. About 35% stayed the same, and 40% actually got worse, for example, becoming more sedentary, more overweight, and heavier users of alcohol and junk food.

Measuring health of arteries

At the study’s end, 20 years later, the scientists found strong correlations between the participants’ lifestyle habits and two major markers of early cardiovascular disease: coronary artery calcification (calcium deposits that can narrow arteries) and carotid intima-media thickness. (Increasing carotid artery intima thickness indicates a build-up of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.)

Those young adults whose lifestyle habits had deteriorated over the two decades had a 32% risk of having poor calcium and intima-media thickness scores, which meant measurable, detrimental impact on their coronary arteries. Those who hadn’t changed their habits had a 20% risk of early heart disease.

Here’s the really good news. Those who added three or four healthy habits reduced their risk of early heart disease to just 5%.

Healthier lifestyles, healthier arteries

In fact, the more healthy habits that the young adults added, the lower their risk of diseased arteries.

This new study offers hopeful – undoubtedly life-saving – news for young people in America, the authors concluded.

It shows that even if you start off life on the wrong track with bad childhood habits like eating a lot of junk food, you can, in early adulthood, make changes that can dramatically turn your cardiovascular risk around. At ages 40 and 50, there’s a good chance you won’t be burdened with plaque build-up, bottles of prescription pills, and other signs of typical middle-aged existence in the U.S.

Instead, you’ll likely be rewarded with many more years of feeling young, and looking it, too.


1 Circulation, 2014; 130: 10.

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