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Few Americans Meet Goals for Heart Health

Study Shows Simple Steps Like Weight Loss and Exercise Can Cut Death Rate
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 19, 2010 (Chicago) -- Meeting just four of seven simple goals for ideal heart health -- such as maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly -- can cut your risk of dying by about half, researchers report.

But in a nationwide study of nearly 18,000 adults, fewer than three in 10 people reached four of the seven goals. And only two people met all seven criteria for top-notch heart health.

Mary Cushman, MD, of the University of Vermont, presented the findings here at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA).

"These numbers are scary and disturbing," says AHA spokeswoman Nieca Goldberg, MD, of New York University's Cardiac and Vascular Institute.

"On the positive side, we're talking about things that people can easily be empowered to do," she tells WebMD. Goldberg was not involved with the work.

7 Steps to Heart Heath

The steps, called Life's Simple 7, were established in January by the AHA. They're part of its campaign to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease by 20% while improving the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20% by the year 2020. The seven steps are:

  1. Maintaining a body mass index of 18.5 to 24.5.
  2. Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, every week.
  3. Quitting smoking at least one year ago, or never smoking.
  4. Getting your total cholesterol levels to below 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
  5. Maintaining blood pressure below 120/80.
  6. Having a fasting blood sugar level of less than 100 mg/dL.
  7. Meeting four of five of the AHA's key components for a healthy diet.

The AHA’s components for a healthy diet are:

  • Eating more than 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Having oily fish such as salmon, trout, and herring at least twice a week.
  • Eating sweets sparingly.
  • Having three or more servings of whole grains a day.
  • Eating fewer than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.

"Just sticking to the diet alone can be difficult," Cushman says. "It may not be realistic to meet all seven goals."

So think baby steps, she says. Every time you meet just one more of the seven criteria, your risk of dying drops 18%, Cushman says.

Goldberg says that people should work with their doctor to develop a plan for improving heart health.

"For example, many people find that [a point system] allows them to better track their food. Others find a pedometer can help them track their exercise," she says.

Reducing Deaths From Heart Disease

The study involved 17,820 Americans ages 45 and older who answered a detailed phone questionnaire about their cardiovascular risk factors. Every six months, participants or their relatives were contacted by phone and asked about their health -- including whether they had a heart attack, stroke, other health problems, or died.

Participants were followed for an average of 4.6 years, during which time, 1,099 of them died. Death rates for those who met two or three of Life's Simple 7 criteria were 36% lower over the study period than for those who met none, Cushman says.

The death rate for those who met four or five criteria was 49% lower, and the death rate for those who met six or all seven goals was 54% lower, compared with those who met none.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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