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Middle-Aged Hearts Are in Poor Shape

Study Shows Many Middle-Aged Americans Don’t Follow Heart-Healthy Lifestyles
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WebMD Health News

anatomical heart on blue background

Feb. 23, 2011 -- Most Americans have poor heart health by the time they’re middle aged, and that’s especially true for African-Americans, a new study suggests.

Only one out of 1,933 people evaluated in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County met the American Heart Association’s definition of having ideal cardiovascular health.

“This tells us that the current prevalence of heart health is extremely low,” Steven Reis, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh, says in a news release.

To achieve an ideal rating, a person must meet four behavior-based criteria: be a nonsmoker, not overweight, practice goal-based physical activity, and eat a healthy diet.

They also must also display three basic markers of heart health: have cholesterol levels below 200, blood pressure under 120/80, and a fasting blood-sugar level below 100.

Tracking Heart Health

The people evaluated were between the ages of 45 and 75. The mean age was 59. They were all part of a study called Heart SCORE, for Heart Strategies Concentrating on Risk Evaluation. 

Less than 10% of the participants met five or more of the seven criteria, and just 2% met the four heart-healthy behaviors. 

African-Americans, who made up almost half of the study, had 82% lower odds than whites of meeting five or more of the heart health criteria.

Over 80% of the study participants were overweight or obese, which “likely had a powerful influence on the other behaviors and factors,” Reis says in the news release.

The study concludes that the prevalence of ideal cardiovascular health “is extremely low in a middle-aged community-based population.” 

This is especially troubling, the researchers write, because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

The researchers suggest that poor heart health is not as related to lower socioeconomic or educational level as might be supposed. For example, 81% of the people in the study had at least some college education and over half reported annual incomes of $40,000 or more.

Unhealthy Lifestyles

Among the study’s other findings:

  • The number of people who met five or more ideal health components decreased significantly with increasing age and falling incomes.
  • African-Americans had a significantly poorer health status than whites in every component of cardiovascular health except for total cholesterol.
  • Men were more likely than women to smoke or be former smokers. Men also were more likely to be overweight and have high blood pressure, while women ranked lower than men on physical activity and total cholesterol status.
  • Less than 40% of all participants ate at least three servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

“Our findings add to previous reports that have demonstrated low prevalences of healthy lifestyles and health factors, both individually and in combination, in the general population and in ongoing epidemiological studies,” the researchers conclude. “Although black race emerged as an important determinant of the lack of achievement of cardiovascular health, both whites and blacks have a long way to goal.”

The study is published in the February issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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