July 5, 2011 -- Leading a healthy lifestyle that includes not smoking, keeping weight down, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet can dramatically reduce risk of sudden cardiac death, a study shows.
The study is published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association.
Sudden cardiac death is different from a heart attack. It is the abrupt loss of heart function that occurs when problems develop in the heart's electrical impulses. Between 250,000 to 310,000 people experience sudden cardiac death in the U.S. each year.
According to the study, women with a low-risk lifestyle -- defined as not smoking, having a healthy body mass index (BMI) of less than 25, exercising for 30 minutes a day or longer, and keeping a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet -- were 92% less likely to experience sudden cardiac death compared with those who did not follow the low-risk lifestyle.
"We know that a healthy lifestyle is very important to prevent many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. So we weren't surprised but we were impressed at how strongly associated these lifestyle factors were for preventing sudden cardiac death," says study researcher Stephanie E. Chiuve, ScD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston.
Researchers analyzed data on lifestyle factors of 81,722 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study from June 1984 to June 2010. Overall, there were 321 cases of sudden cardiac death among women during 26 years of follow-up. Each healthy habit conferred a lower risk of sudden cardiac disease on its own, but risk for sudden cardiac death was lowest among women who followed all four options of the healthy lifestyle.
Healthy Choices Reduce Heart Risk
Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, calls the new findings "so significant and so empowering."
If "you never smoke, exercise 30 minutes a day, don't gain too much weight, and eat a Mediterranean-style diet, you will reduce your risk for sudden cardiac death, and your risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, too," she says. A Mediterranean diet includes fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, nuts and fish, and includes moderate alcohol consumption.
"Take baby steps," Steinbaum says. "Don't try to lose 30 pounds. Just eat healthier and start by exercising for five minutes a day and build up to 30 minutes on most days."
Melissa Joy Tracy, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, agrees. "This very large study demonstrates that all four low risk lifestyle factors were significantly and independently associated with a lower risk of sudden cardiac death."
She says the findings "are very striking and all you can take from this study is positive news."