Healthy Diet and Exercise in Midlife May Prevent Serious Health Conditions in Senior Years
An ongoing, multigenerational study shows that regular physical activity and a healthy diet may be the key to middle-aged adults avoiding cardiovascular disease in later life.
The latest study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, used data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), which began more than seven decades ago.
The landmark study has involved 14,000 participants from three generations of Framingham, Massachusetts, residents. The FHS has been recognized for giving health professionals a better understanding of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers credit the FHS as one of the reasons why today’s primary care doctors routinely check for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The latest analysis found that running, walking, swimming, and related vigorous physical activity and eating fruits and vegetables may prevent serious cardiovascular problems in a person’s senior years.
What is the FHS?
The FHS, directed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, began in 1948 with 5,209 men and women from Framingham. The residents were between the ages of 30 and 62, and had not yet developed symptoms of cardiovascular disease or had a heart attack or stroke.
Since health professionals did not know much about cardiovascular disease or prevention, the study’s mission was to identify factors that contributed to the chronic health condition.
What are now considered major risk factors for cardiovascular disease had its origins in data from the original Framingham study participants, their children, and their grandchildren. These risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Psychosocial issues
FHS researchers and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute have expanded the project into other areas, such as how genetic factors contribute to cardiovascular disease.
In a 2018 news release about the 70th anniversary of the study, American Heart Association (AHA) CEO Nancy Brown said the new approaches and therapies resulting from the Framingham study have helped the AHA to fight heart disease more effectively.
“Framingham is living proof of the lifesaving power of scientific research,” Brown said.
Information Used For the Most Recent FHS
The latest FHS findings involved the grandchildren of the initial Framingham participants. The average age of the 2,379 participants was 47, and 54 percent were women. The participants were examined between 2008 and 2011.
To evaluate the participants’ physical activity, researchers used a special device called an “omnidirectional accelerometer,” which tracks sedentary and physical activities. Participants wore the device on their hip for eight days. Participants were given food frequency questionnaires about the kinds and levels of food and nutrients they consumed.
FHS researchers used the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) physical activity and dietary guidelines in the analysis:
- For good health benefits, HHS recommends at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity physical activity.
- For better health benefits, HHS guidelines recommend 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous aerobic physical activity, such as walking or swimming.
As for healthy foods, HHS recommendations include:
- A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas)
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, and nuts, seeds, and soy products
Recent FHS Findings
The latest FHS results showed:
- 28 percent of all participants met HHS’ recommendations of both the physical activity and dietary guidelines
- Of the participants who followed both guidelines, 65 percent lowered their chances of developing metabolic syndrome—a cluster of health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
- 47 percent of participants met recommendations in only one of the guidelines.
- Participants who followed the physical activity recommendations alone had a 51 percent lower chance of developing metabolic syndrome.
- Participants who followed the dietary guidelines alone had 33 percent lower odds of developing metabolic syndrome.
In a press release about FHS, Vanessa Xanthakis, an investigator and co-author of the study, said that health care professionals can use the FHS to talk with their patients about how to avoid developing chronic health conditions.
“The earlier people make these lifestyle changes, the more likely they will be to lower their risk of cardiovascular-associated diseases later in life,” said Xanthakis, an assistant professor of medicine and biostatistics in the Section of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine in Boston.
Because all study participants were white adults, FHS investigators say the findings cannot be generalized to people in other racial or ethnic groups. Additional studies with a multiethnic participant sample are needed, researchers said.
According to information on the FHS website, two groups from minority populations, including related individuals, have been added to the FHS since 1994.