Unhealthy habits, like smoking and being overweight, have long been linked to heart disease and cancer, America's top killers. The reverse of that coin - the impact of healthy habits on preventing disease and death - has been a mantra in the medical community. Now a new study adds weight to that, finding that healthful behaviors, like exercising and eating a balanced diet, can reduce the risk of early death by up to 76 percent.
"It's common sense," said study author Quanhe Yang, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division for Heart Diseases and Stroke Prevention. "We know what increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. And if you can prevent or postpone those risk factors from developing, it will really reduce your risk long term."
Yang and colleagues used surveys to probe seven measures of healthy living - smoking, physical activity, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, diet and weight - in nearly 45,000 adult men and women between 1988 and 2010 . They found people who were "ideal" on six or more of the parameters were 76 percent less likely to die from heart disease and 51 percent less likely to die from other causes, including cancer.
"We can prevent cardiovascular disease by preventing the risk factors from occurring in the first place," said Yang. The study was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing nearly 600,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC. While each healthy living parameter independently affected the risk of death due to heart disease, having an ideal blood pressure was the biggest contributor, reducing the risk by 40 percent.
"There are about 68 million people with hypertension in the U.S.," said Yang. "If you could bring that down by 10 percent, you could prevent 14,000 cardiovascular events."
Not smoking and eating an ideal diet reduced the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 13 percent each, Yang said. But less than 1 percent of the U.S. study population ate an ideal diet consisting of fruits, veggies, fish, whole grains with limited sodium and sugar.
Although smoking has declined since 1988, blood sugar - a marker of diabetes - and weight have risen steadily. Only 2.1 percent of the study subjects were ideal on six or more parameters. They tended to be younger, female and more educated. The majority of subjects were healthy on three of the seven parameters.
Yang said he hopes to see smoking continue to decline, and weight and diabetes level off. He also hopes to see the proportion of people with ideal physical activity and diet increase.
"If we can shift the whole population towards ideal cardiovascular health metrics, we will really reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and death," said Yang.