May 29, 2009 -- Americans know what they need to do to ward off cardiovascular disease and live longer, but despite health recommendations, most still aren't making smart lifestyle choices, new research indicates.
Only a small proportion of adults are engaging in physical activity on a regular basis, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, or working hard to maintain a healthy weight, researchers report in the June 2009 issue of The American Journal of Medicine.
Researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston compared the results of two large-scale surveys of the U.S. population regarding adherence to five healthy lifestyle habits.
According to their findings, between 1988 and 2006:
- The percentage of obese adults between 40 and 74 (determined by body mass index of 30 or higher) increased from 28% to 36%, reinforcing findings of many studies indicating Americans are getting fatter.
- Physical activity 12 times or more per month among people in that age group declined from 53% to 43%.
- Smoking rates remained essentially flat, going from 26.9% to 26.1%.
- Those people eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily dropped from 42% to 26%.
- Moderate alcohol use increased from 40% to 51%. Moderate use was defined as having up to one drink daily for women and two for men.
According to a news release, the analysis of the two surveys' findings indicates that the proportion of people adhering to all five healthy lifestyle habits has decreased almost by half, from 15% to 8%.
The data was taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted from 1988 to 1994 and included the responses from 7,340 participants. A second survey conducted from 2001 to 2006 included 7,811 participants. The researchers say they analyzed data from adults 40 to 74 because that age range is the primary time for initial diagnosis of cardiovascular risk factors and disease.
The study concludes that people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol are no more likely to adhere to healthy lifestyle habits than people without such risk factors.
"The potential public health benefits from promoting a healthier lifestyle at all ages, and especially ages 40-74 years, are substantial," writes study researcher Dana E. King, MD, MS. "Regular physical activity and a prudent diet can reduce the risk of premature death and disability from a variety of conditions, including coronary heart disease, and are strongly related to the incidence of obesity."
King also notes that medical costs related to physical inactivity and its consequences are estimated at $76 billion.
Men's healthy habits have decreased more than women in some areas, the researchers write. For example, 43% of men in the analyzed age group exercised 12 times or more per month in 2001-2006, compared to 57% in the 1988-1994 period.
Over the same periods, the percentage of women engaging in physical activity decreased from 49% to 43%, the study shows.
"The prevalence of obesity climbed to a similar degree in both men and women," the researchers write. Also, the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and cardiovascular disease has increased over the last 18 years.
Among their conclusions: More emphasis is needed on the importance of healthy lifestyle habits.