Do your heart a favor: Control risk factors

A study of over a quarter of a million people confirms that traditional risk-factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as high blood pressure, raise the chance of major CVD events like heart attack or stroke over the course of a lifetime. The study also reinforces the importance of controlling these risk factors.

Past CVD risk factors studies have focused on a specific age or gender among white populations. They’ve also analyzed risk over a period of 10 years or less rather than across a lifetime.

The Cardiovascular Lifetime Risk Pooling Project was designed to collect 50 years of data from studies across the United States. It pooled data from 18 studies involving a total of more than 250,000 people — Black and white, men and women.

The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones of the Northwestern University, measured traditional CVD risk factors, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes and smoking status, at ages 45, 55, 65 and 75.

The research, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that differences in risk factors translate into marked differences in the lifetime risk of CVD.

For example, 55-year-old men with at least 2 major risk factors were 6 times as likely to die from CVD by age 80 as men with none or one CVD risk factor. Women age 55 with at least two major risk factors were three times as likely to die from CVD by age 80 as those with no real risk-factors.

When all CVD events—fatal and non-fatal—were considered, the results were even more striking. For example, 45-year-old men with two or more risk factors had a 49% chance of having a major CVD event by age 80, whereas men with no real risk-factors had only a 1.4 percent chance. Forty-five-year-old women with two or more risk factors had a 30 percent chance of having a major CVD event by age 80, while those with no risk-factors had a four percent chance.

The researchers found that, while Black Americans have a higher prevalence of CVD risk factors than white Americans, their lifetime risks are similar when their risk-factor profiles are similar. The study also revealed that traditional risk factors predict the long-term development of CVD more than age itself.

So the lesson of the study? Reducing your lifetime risk factors, especially starting at an early age, can significantly prolong your life.

“These data have important implications for prevention,” Lloyd-Jones says. “We need to get more serious about promoting healthy lifestyles in children and young adults, since even mild elevations in risk factors by middle age seem to have profound effects on the remaining lifetime risks for CVD.”