July 16, 2011

An Amazing Number

A Harvard study figures out how much various healthy lifestyle choices reduce your risk of sudden cardiac death. It's huge.

While it's probably not anything you didn't already know, a new study gives women even more reason to live a healthy lifestyle to reduce their risk of heart-related death. The study suggests that those who practice low-risk behaviors reduce their risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD) substantially.

SCD is sudden, unexpected death caused by a disturbance in the electrical system to the heart resulting in abnormal heart rhythms. It is the largest cause of natural death in the United States and is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths. Most people who suffer SCD never realized they were at risk, especially women, since heart disease is often thought of as a problem for men more so than women.

SCD is sudden, unexpected death caused by a disturbance in the electrical system to the heart… It is the largest cause of natural death in the United States.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed results from the Nurses' Health Study, a study that followed the health and lifestyle of over 81,000 women. During the 26-year study, 321 women died from SCD at an average age of 72. While the study used data on women, there is no reason to suspect its findings don't also apply to men.

Four factors were used to identify a low-risk lifestyle: not smoking; BMI less than 25; exercising at least 30 minutes a day, and adherence to a Mediterranean style diet, one which emphasizes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and fish, along with moderate alcohol intake. All four of the low-risk lifestyle factors were significantly and independently associated with a reduced risk of SCD.

Women who consumed a Mediterranean-style diet had the lowest risk, 40% less than women whose diet was least like a Mediterranean diet. Women with a healthy BMI were 56% less likely to experience SCD. Exercise reduced the risk to 28%, and smoking was found to be the biggest risk factor. Women who never smoked had a 75% lower risk than women who smoked at least 25 cigarettes a day. When combined, the low-risk lifestyle factors were linked to a 92% reduction in the risk of SCD.

Stephanie Chiuve, Sc.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues calculated that four out of every five cases of SCD may be attributed to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors.

In a press release from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the authors were quoted as saying, "The primary prevention of SCD remains a major public health challenge because most SCD occurs among individuals not identified as high risk. In this cohort of female nurses, adherence to an overall healthy lifestyle was associated with a lower risk of SCD and may be an effective strategy for the prevention of SCD."

The study was published in the July 6, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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