Simply getting more exercise and tweaking your diet to reduce fat and cholesterol can offer protection against the increased risk associated with the aging female heart. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a hundred times -- eat right and get in shape -- but now there's evidence that doing so does more whittle your waistline. It also slows progression of atherosclerosis, the thickening of artery walls caused by cholesterol buildup and linked with heart disease and stroke risks.
It's the first time research has shown those effects in women approaching menopause, according one of the study's authors, Kim Sutton-Tyrell, DrPH, of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. "Diet and exercise really work. Not only do they result in lower weight and cholesterol levels, the result is also a slowing of disease progression," says Sutton-Tyrell in a news release.
Although women have a lower risk of heart disease than men do, as women approach menopause their risks of heart disease increase and start to equal or even surpass the risks of heart disease seen in men.
The researchers studied 353 women aged 44-50 and nearing the transition to menopause at the start of the study. About half of the women were assigned to a lifestyle intervention program to overhaul their diet and fitness habits; the rest were a comparison group and didn't adjust their food or activity levels.
The study, part of the Women's Healthy Lifestyle Project, ran from 1991 to 1994.
Their new diet allowed no more than 1,300 calories per day, 25% of which came from dietary fat (with saturated fat limited to 7% of daily calories). Cholesterol intake was cut to 100 milligrams per day. Physical activity levels were pumped up so the women burned an extra 1,500 calories per week.
Group sessions were held by nutritional and behavioral experts over 20 weeks; afterward, participants focused on maintaining their progress.
The lifestyle changes paid off. The women in the intervention group had "significantly less" thickening of their arteries, write the researchers in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Thickening of the walls of the arteries, measured in the major neck vessels, is a marker for an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
The women also weighed less, had a lower body mass index (a measure of weight for height and an indirect measure of body fat), and burned more calories than the women in the control group.
For reasons not fully understood, the risk of atherosclerosis accelerates in women around menopause. More studies are needed to find out why that happens, says Nannette Wenger, MD, FACC, of Emory University in Atlanta, writing about the study in an editorial commentary in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The bottom line: move more, eat a healthy diet, and reap the benefits before, during, and after menopause.