“The truth about the heritability (or genetic component) of heart disease is a glass far more full than empty, as long as we look at it accurately,” says Dr. Taylor, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and the director of exercise physiology research at Hartford Hospital.
Genetics do play a significant role in increasing heart disease risk. Research shows that individuals at high genetic risk have a 91% higher chance of experiencing a cardiac event, yet that risk can be cut nearly in half by adopting healthy lifestyles.
“We may have genes that predispose us to cardiovascular disease, but when, how and to what extent those genes express themselves is highly influenced by lifestyle,” says Dr. Taylor. “Being more physically active, aiming for a healthy weight, eating a heart healthy diet and avoiding smoking can improve heart health and reduce the risk of coronary events by 46% for high genetic risk individuals.”
The outlook looks even better when considering being healthy across the lifespan rather than at a single age. The Framingham Heart Study, a project of Boston University and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), has sought to identify common factors contributing to cardiovascular disease (CVD) by following CVD development in three generations of participants.
Dr. Taylor adds, “When those three generations of the Framingham Heart Study were reviewed, investigators concluded that the heritability of ideal cardiovascular health was only 13-18%, with health behaviors and lifestyle factors being much more influential.”
She says other studies have found that adhering to just four out of five of healthy lifestyle factors (e.g., avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake, performing 30 or more minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, eating a heart healthy diet) increased the likelihood of living free of cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer and Type 2 diabetes, by more than 10 years in women and seven years in men.
For Dr. Taylor, the take-home message is simple. “You can’t completely cure a broken heart; however, you can make it better or worse based on your lifestyle. The choice is yours!”
Find more heart health resources from ACSM at https://www.acsm.org/read-research/trending-topics-resource-pages/heart-health-resources.
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About the American College of Sports Medicine
The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 50,000 international, national and regional members and certified professionals are dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine. More details at acsm.org.
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