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The Secret to a Healthy Heart

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healthy-heart-through-lifestyle-changes Hemera/Thinkstock

I absolutely love the way the media portrays "older" women these days. More and more you see movies with great roles for actresses who’ve long since left their 20s smoking behind in the dust.

Morning talk shows and evening news feature vibrant, intelligent -- and yes, mature -- women in prominent, leading roles. From Cougar Town to glamour grandmothers, or glamgrams, to magazines that proudly proclaim that 50-is-the-new-30, it’s a good time to be a woman who is 50-something.

Unfortunately, no one told cardiovascular disease that 50 is supposed to be the new 30 and heart disease continues to be a source of health concern for aging women, particularly after menopause.

As we enter into our second-generation 30-something era of life, how do we keep heart disease at bay and enjoy the heart health that we had in our 30s? The answer lies in the lifestyle choices we make during our 20s and 30s.

According to the results of a new study conducted by Northwestern Medicine, the lifestyle choices that you make as a young adult have a direct correlation on your risk of heart disease as you age. For those at risk for heart disease, lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce and even prevent heart disease.

Recommended lifestyle changes include following a healthy heart-friendly diet, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping body-mass-index or BMI within healthy levels, and quitting smoking. Other recommended lifestyle changes are managing stress levels, limiting alcohol intake, controlling high blood pressure, lowering high blood cholesterol levels, controlling diabetes, and practicing good hygiene.

While multiple lifestyle factors were examined, the Northwestern study examined the effects of consistently following five selected heart-healthy lifestyle choices during the 20s and 30s on the development of heart disease later in life.

The lifestyle changes tracked were a healthy diet, limiting alcohol intake, no smoking, a healthy BMI, and regular physical activity. Researchers found that people who made these five heart-healthy habits a part of their life in their 20s and 30s had a lower risk of heart disease after age 40. This was true even if the participant had a family history of heart disease.

To reach their conclusions, researchers examined the data collected from 3,000 thousand participants in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults, or CARDIA, study. A long-term study, CARDIA began collecting participant data in 1985-1986.

CARDIA participants were between the ages of 18 and 30 years with an average age of 24 years in the first year of the study. At the beginning of the study, 44 percent were classified as having a low risk for heart disease. At the 20 year mark, the number of participants with a low risk for heart disease had dropped to 24.5 percent.

After examining the data, researchers found that 60 percent of participants who incorporated all five healthy lifestyle habits into their daily routine were still at a low risk for heart disease at the 20 year mark of the study. On the other hand, 95 percent of participants who failed to incorporate any of the five lifestyle changes into their daily routine were found to be at high risk for heart disease after 20 years.

In the movie Gone with The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara was famous for saying “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.” As a health advocate, I frequently hear that same comment from young women that I speak to about heart disease. When you’re 20, the world stretches before you with endless possibilities and it’s hard to imagine how today's choices may limit the world you live in at 50 or 60 or 80.

If researchers are right, then the truth is that when we’re 50-something, we’ll reap the results of the healthy -- or not so healthy -- lifestyle habits we choose in our 20s and 30s. That makes heart disease a health issue for all ages.

If we want a heart disease-free tomorrow, then we have to worry about heart disease today. Perhaps the secret to a heart-healthy middle age lies not just in the choices we make in our 20s and 30s, but in educating young adults about how important the choices they make today are for their tomorrow.


How is Coronary Heart Disease Treated? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 01 May 2011.

Northwestern University (2012, March 2). Lifestyle choices made in your 20s can impact your heart health in your 40s. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from

Heart Disease: Lifestyle and Home Remedies. The Mayo Clinic. 12 Jan 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-disease/DS01120/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies

Reviewed March 14, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment2 Comments


Hi Donna.. I'm 50 something as well and hear you on everything that you're doing. You sound a lot like me in that I like the swimming too because it's so easy on your joints. If you ever want to mix your exercise routine up, you might try NIA. NIA is a non-impact aerobic exercise based on a number of dance forms and is much easier on the joints than some of the other high intensity aerobic workouts.   You mentioned high blood pressure. Do you also have high cholesterol?  If so, have your doctor check your Vitamin D level as a Vit D deficiency is linked to high cholesterol.  I have MS which sucks the Vit D right out of my body and when my Vit D levels are low, my cholesterol goes up.  When Vit D is normal, my cholesterol goes down. 

Good luck!  Mary

March 26, 2012 - 7:17pm

Awesome reality check Mary! I'm 50 something and recently found out I have high blood pressure. Of course, I am taking the necessary precautions and mostly that includes a life change.
I go to the gym (oh boy I need to be pulled out for that one) but make it a point to do so every other day. I am fully enjoy water exercises because there is no gravity. I swim for my cardio and do weights in the pool. I'm having a blast now that I'm used to it.
I also eat oatmeal every day (yuck...not a fan) but I know it makes a difference in this situation, especially with cholesterol being high.
I take my fish oil, CoQ10, etc.
Although I feel young, I have to listen to my body because the truth is I have lived over a half century and the reality is I need to tweak my diet and exercise.
I thank you for this awesome post. It will enlighten many people.
Donna Merrill

March 14, 2012 - 10:24am
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