THURSDAY, June 28 (HealthDay News) -- Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle makes a difference, even if the change doesn't come until middle age.
In fact, people who eat right and exercise more can substantially reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease and death even if they're in their 50s or 60s, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina report.
Consuming at least five fruits and vegetables daily, exercising at least 2.5 hours per week, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can lessen your chances of heart trouble by 35 percent, and your risk of dying by 40 percent, compared to people with less healthy lifestyles, according to the report in the July issue of the American Journal of Medicine.
"We call this the turning-back-the-clock study," said lead researcher Dr. Dana E. King. "We want to emphasize that it's not too late change, and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle don't accrue only to people who have been doing this all along, but you can make changes in your 50s and 60s and have a healthier longer life because of it."
King said his team wanted to test if, once you reach middle age, it's too late to adopt healthy habits and improve your health. "We found that it's not too late," he said. "The benefits were dramatic and immediate, even at age 65."
"Some people in middle age don't change, because they think the damage is done," King said. "In fact, in this study, the chances of dying or having a heart attack were reduced by a third after just four years of living a healthy lifestyle."
In the study, King's team collected data on 15,792 men and women aged 45 to 64 who took part in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study.
The researchers found that during four years of follow-up, the benefit of switching to a healthy lifestyle after age 45 became apparent. In addition, the benefit happened even with modest changes in health habits.
Moreover, a healthy lifestyle was beneficial when compared with people with three or fewer healthy habits, not just compared to people with no healthy habits or only one of the healthy habits, King's group found. While people with only three healthy habits had lower mortality, they did not reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, only 8.5 percent of people in the study practiced these four healthy behaviors, and only 8.4 percent adopted these lifestyle changes after age 45.
King noted that men, blacks, those without a college education, those with lower income, or those with a history of high blood pressure or diabetes were all less likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle past age 45.
One expert noted that living healthy reduces your risk of other diseases, too.
"Most experts agree that a health-promoting lifestyle -- eating well, being active, not smoking -- can cut overall risk of heart disease by 80 percent, cancer risk by 60 percent, and diabetes risk by 90 percent," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.
King and his colleagues show that it may never be too late to start over, Katz said. "Healthy living is the most powerful medicine of all. It requires no prescription, and all of the side effects are beneficial, too. It can, admittedly, be tough at times to get there from here, but it's well worth it, and anytime is a good time to start."
Another expert agreed.
"These are very encouraging results," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab and Gershoff Professor of Nutrition at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University.
"They confirm that adopting heart-healthy behaviors, regardless of age, can lead to clear benefits," Lichtenstein said. "Additionally, by identifying individuals who are more likely to adopt heart-healthy behaviors and who is not, more targeted programs to help the more unlikely ones to change can be developed."
For more information on healthy living, visit the American Heart Association.
SOURCES: Dana E. King, M.D., Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director, Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, Tufts University, Boston, and vice chairwoman, nutrition committee, American Heart Association; July 2007, American Journal of Medicine