A Healthy Lifestyle Could Counteract the Genes for Heart Disease

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Heart disease, currently the number-one cause of death in the U.S., kills one American every 40 seconds — that’s roughly 2,150 each day. Worldwide, the total is around 17.3 million people each year. And for people with a genetic predisposition for cardiovascular problems, the risk of a heart attack or similar incident is 91 percent higher.

But according to a paper published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine, there are steps people can take to aggressively cut down their risk, even when their genes would say otherwise.

The authors analyzed four studies encompassing more than 55,000 participants, looking at 50 different genes linked to cardiovascular disease, as well as four different lifestyle factors: not smoking, exercising at least once a week, having a weight below the threshold for obesity, and eating a diet high in produce, fish, and whole grains. (A “healthy lifestyle” was defined as meeting three out of the four criteria.) The New York Times summed up the results:

One study the group analyzed involved black and white Americans aged 45 to 64. A good lifestyle in those with the highest genetic risk cut the 10-year likelihood of heart disease to 5.1 percent from 10.7 percent. Another study involved 21,222 American women aged 45 and older who were health professionals; their 10-year risk fell to 2 percent from 4.6 percent in the high-risk group if they also had a healthy lifestyle. In a third study, Swedish participants aged 44 to 73 had a 10-year risk reduction to 5.3 percent from 8.2 percent. And finally, in a study of Americans aged 55 to 80, those with genetic risk but a healthy lifestyle had significantly less calcium, a sign of heart disease, in their coronary arteries.

On average, they found, having good genes but an unhealthy lifestyle upped the risk of heart disease by about half — but on the other end of the spectrum, people with healthy habits could cut their genetic risk by roughly the same amount.

“Even if you have been dealt a bad genetic hand,” lead study author Sekar Kathiresan, the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Human Genetic Research, told the Times, “you have it in your power to change that risk.” It’s an issue of simple reframing — from something determined by genes to something within an individual’s control — that could make a difference in the health of a lot of people.