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Jul 01, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Healthy Habits Can Help Adults Undo Heart Disease Risk


The heart may be more forgiving than you think, especially to adults who are trying to take charge of their health.

Researchers from Northwestern University found that when adults in their 30s and 40s decide to drop unhealthy habits that are harmful to their heart and embrace healthy lifestyle changes, they can control and potentially even reverse the natural progression of coronary artery disease, Yahoo News reported.

"It's not too late," Bonnie Spring, lead investigator of the study and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a statement. "You're not doomed if you've hit young adulthood and acquired some bad habits. You can still make a change and it will have a benefit for your heart."

For the study, scientists examined healthy lifestyle behaviors and coronary artery calcification and thickening among the more than 5,000 participants in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study who were assessed at baseline (when participants were ages 18 to 30) and 20 years later.

The healthy lifestyle factors assessed were: not being overweight or obese, being a nonsmoker and physically active and having low alcohol intake and a healthy diet. At the beginning of the study, less than 10 percent of the CARDIA participants reported all five healthy lifestyle behaviors.

At the 20-year mark, about 25 percent of the study participants had added at least one healthy lifestyle behavior.

Based on their findings, each increase in healthy lifestyle factors was associated with reduced odds of detectable coronary artery calcification and lower intima-media thickness -- two major markers of cardiovascular disease that can predict future cardiovascular events.

Spring said the findings help debunk two myths held by some health care professionals.

The first is that it's nearly impossible to change patients' behaviors, and the second myth is that the damage has already been done -- adulthood is too late for healthy lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of developing coronary artery disease.

"Clearly, that's incorrect," Spring said. "Adulthood is not too late for healthy behavior changes to help the heart."

On the other hand, 40 percent of the study participants lost healthy lifestyle factors and acquired more bad habits as they aged.

"Each decrease in healthy lifestyle factors led to greater odds of detectable coronary artery calcification and higher intima-media thickness," Spring said. "Adulthood isn't a 'safe period' when one can abandon healthy habits without doing damage to the heart. A healthy lifestyle requires upkeep to be maintained."

Spring said people should keep a healthy body weight, and engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five times a week if they want to embrace a healthy lifestyle.

The findings were recently published in the journal Circulation.

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