Early adulthood is a key time to adopt healthy lifestyle habits to prevent heart disease in middle age, a new study finds.
The researchers found that when study participants were in their early 20s, nearly 44 percent had a low risk of developing heart disease. But 20 years later, only 24.5 percent still met the criteria.
Maintaining a low heart-disease risk into middle age depended on engaging in five behaviors during young adulthood, the researchers found.
"In this study, even people with a family history of heart problems were able to have a low cardiovascular disease risk profile, if they started living a healthy lifestyle when they were young," said Kiang Liu, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. "This supports the notion that lifestyle may play a more prominent role than genetics."
The study was published Feb. 28 in the journal Circulation.
5 heart-healthy behaviors
Few people in the U.S. currently fall into the category of having a "low-risk profile" for cardiovascular disease, which researchers base on a number of factors, including body mass index and cholesterol levels. In fact, one recent study found that only 7.5 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 74 are in this low-risk group and are not overweight, according to background information in the article.
The new findings were based on data from 2,336 people taking part in a study called the Coronary Artery Risk Development in (Young) Adults Study, which began in 1985. The participants provide information on their diets, and undergo physical exams and blood tests.
The participants' average age was 24 at the study's start, and the researchers looked at whether they engaged in five behaviors during their young adulthood: maintaining a lean body mass index, avoiding excess alcohol intake, not smoking, eating a healthy diet and regularly exercising.
At the study's start, most study participants were engaging in only two or three of the behaviors. Just 6 percent of the participants met all five criteria of a healthy lifestyle, while 15 percent met none or one.
When the participants reached middle age, 60 percent of those who had maintained all five healthy behaviors had a low cardiovascular risk profile, while fewer than 5 percent of those who followed none of the healthy lifestyles did.
Why we let things slide
"Many middle-aged adults develop unhealthy diets, gain weight and aren't as physically active, Liu said. Such lifestyles, of course, lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes and elevated cardiovascular risk."
Young people who adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles will gain more than heart health, Liu said.
"Many studies suggest that people who have low cardiovascular risk in middle age will have a better quality of life, will live longer and will have lower Medicare costs in their older age," he said. "There are a lot of benefits to maintaining a low-risk profile."
Pass it on: A healthy lifestyles in early adulthood can lead to a healthy heart in middle age.