THURSDAY, July 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Young adults who drop
their bad health habits can reduce their risk of heart disease as
they age, new research suggests.
"Even after people have hit adulthood with some unhealthy
behaviors, it's not too late to produce a benefit for their heart
if they change those behaviors," said study author Bonnie Spring, a
health psychologist and professor of preventive medicine at
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"Conversely, if they don't keep up their healthy lifestyle
behaviors, and lose some, we will see adverse effects on their
coronary arteries, which increases the risk of heart disease,"
While many studies have shown that unhealthy behaviors are
linked with heart problems, fewer studies have looked at whether
turning around the bad habits might have a good effect, she
The general thinking is that people won't change, Spring added.
She found that's not always true -- and that the change made a
"What's important here is, if you have reached adulthood and you
have an unhealthy lifestyle, you are not doomed to have heart
disease," Spring said. "If you make healthy changes, you can reduce
Spring's team tracked the health behaviors of more than 3,500
men and women enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in
Young Adults (CARDIA) study. The researchers evaluated the
participants when they were aged 18 to 30 and then again 20 years
later, looking for changes that predict heart disease, such as
calcification in the blood vessels.
The investigators looked at five healthy habits: not being
overweight; being a nonsmoker; being physical active; having a low
intake of alcohol; and having a healthy diet (defined as being low
in fat and high in calcium, fiber and potassium).
At the study's start, less than 10 percent of the young men and
women reported all five healthy habits. Over time, 25 percent of
the men and women made healthy lifestyle changes. About 35 percent
stayed the same in terms of health habits, and 40 percent had fewer
healthy habits over time.
The more healthy habits that were added, the lower the risk of
heart disease, the researchers found. "We can't claim
cause-and-effect," Spring said, because the study only found an
association between the two.
However, the more healthy habits that were added, the lower the
risk of finding the early signs of heart problems, she explained.
The more that were discarded, the higher the risk.
For instance, those who kept the same habits over the 20 years
had nearly a 20 percent risk of having the early signs of heart
disease by year 20. Those who discarded three or four healthy
behaviors had a 32 percent risk of having the early heart disease
signs. And those who added three or four healthy habits reduced the
risk to just 5 percent.
What to do first? The two habits that had the most effect,
Spring said, were keeping a healthy weight and not smoking.
Those two habits might have shown the greatest effect simply
because they are easier to measure, Spring said. Even so, she
suggested those two habits are a good place to start.
The study is published in the July 1 issue of the journal
Circulationand was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of
One expert noted the study shows that lifestyle choices made
early in adulthood may make all the difference.
"This new study provides new insight into how lifestyle changes
from ages 18 to 30 play out over the next 20 years," said Dr. Gregg
Fonarow, professor of cardiovascular medicine and science at the
David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California,
While much research has shown how unhealthy habits add to the
risk of heart problems, Fonarow said, "it has not been well studied
to determine how changes in lifestyle in early adulthood impact
subsequent development of atherosclerosis [hardening of the
arteries] and cardiovascular risk."
The findings, he said, "suggest it is never too early to adopt a
healthy lifestyle but that even those who start off on the wrong
path can substantially turn their cardiovascular risk around by
making favorable lifestyle choices in early adulthood."
To learn more about how modest changes can make a difference,
American Heart Association.