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How Great Is Your Heart Risk at 50?

Study Highlights Importance of Early Efforts to Prevent Heart Disease
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 6, 2006 -- Just more than half of men and 40% of women at age 50 in the U.S. will develop cardiovascular disease during their lifetime. But researchers say the danger is much greater for people who have multiple risk factors for heart disease by age 50.

The first-ever comprehensive lifetime risk assessment for cardiovascular disease highlights the importance of reducing risk early in life to prevent heart and vascular disease later on. Cardiovascular disease events included heart attack, angina, coronary heart disease, stroke, and claudication (peripheral arterial disease).

Reducing risk means maintaining a healthy weight, getting plenty of exercise, keeping cholesterol levels and blood pressure under control, and not smoking, says Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, part of the research team that developed the lifetime risk assessment.

"Once risk factors develop it is hard to get the cat back in the bag," he says. "If we can get people to focus more on healthy lifestyles and risk factors, we can essentially make this disease a thing of the past."

Abolishing Future Risk

Lloyd-Jones and colleagues from Northwestern University used data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed thousands of people for decades, to calculate lifetime cardiovascular risk among 50-year-olds. They found that:

  • The average lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease was around 52% for men and 39% for women.
  • Lifetime risk jumped to 69% for men and 50% for women who had two or more cardiovascular risk factors by age 50.
  • Lifetime risk was just 5% among men and 8% among women who had optimal risk factors for cardiovascular disease at age 50. That meant that they were not overweight, did not smoke, and did not have diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

These low-risk 50-year-olds tended to live into their 90s, whereas the median survival for men and women with two major cardiovascular risk factors was roughly a decade shorter.

"If you reach age 50 with all optimal risk factors, you have essentially abolished your future risk of cardiovascular disease," Lloyd-Jones tells WebMD.

Just 3% of men and 4% of women in the analysis fell into this very low-risk category at age 50. But Lloyd-Jones says many more Americans could reach their sixth decade with almost no cardiovascular risks.

"It sounds trite, but physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight could make all the difference," he says. "Yet, the number of overweight and obese individuals is skyrocketing."

Diabetes Patients Had Highest Risk

The researchers reviewed the medical records of 3,564 men and 4,362 women who did not have any record of cardiovascular disease at age 50. The men and women were followed for several decades and all cases of heart attack, coronary heart disease, angina, stroke, claudication (pain in the legs caused by circulation problems), and death from cardiovascular disease were recorded.

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