Healthy Hearts Predict Healthy Old Age, Says Study

November 2003 - Taking steps to prevent heart disease is the best way to ensure a better-than-average, healthy old age, according to University of Pittsburgh researchers in a paper published in the October 27 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Our study is a picture of what the future of older people could be like - the ideal golden years if they keep heart disease risk factors in check," said the study's lead investigator, Anne B. Newman, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of geriatric medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. "Older healthy people can maintain better-than-average quality of life, with lower rates of physical and cognitive decline, when they refrain from smoking, lower their blood lipids, watch blood pressure and avoid obesity through diet and exercise."

In the multi-site observational study, part of the Cardiovascular Health Study, investigators looked at data on 2,932 participants who qualified at baseline as "healthy," or free of major life-threatening diseases and having normal physical and cognitive function.

Researchers report that after eight years, 48 percent of the participants (1,408) had aged successfully, meaning they had remained free of incident cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and new and persistent physical disability or cognitive decline.

The likelihood of success was related to the presence of subclinical cardiovascular disease (CVD) disease identifiable only through diagnostic testing at the start of the study. Those participants without subclinical CVD fared better through the eight years. Among those without subclinical CVD at baseline, 56 percent of women and 51 percent of men aged successfully over the course of the study, compared with about 40 percent of those who had subclinical CVD at baseline.

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During the eight years, participants with baseline subclinical CVD saw their health decline at a rate similar to that of participants who were five years older and who did not have subclinical CVD.

Analysis of age groups with low levels of cardiovascular risk illustrate the potential for successful, or healthy, aging. Men and women ages 65-69 with low CVD risk factors averaged 15-16 additional years of health and function; those age 85 and higher with low risk saw four to five additional such years. Conversely, men and women with high CVD risk factors averaged one to two years additional years of health and function.

"Those who began the study at a younger age, without subclinical cardiovascular disease, without diabetes, without hypertension, were most likely to age successfully through the eight years," said Dr. Newman. "This tells us that in order to have a good quality of life during old age, with minimal disease and disability, healthy senior citizens should pay strict attention to controlling cardiovascular risk factors."

Study investigators included Dr. Newman and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh; University of Washington; Johns Hopkins University; Wake Forest University; University of Arizona; St. Francis Medical Center, Roslyn N.Y.; University of California Davis Medical Center; Tufts--New England Medical Center; and University of Vermont. Their research was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center