A number of factors, including family history and lifestyle, can put someone at risk for a heart attack. A large Swedish study published in 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that five lifestyle factors, including a healthy diet, regular exercise and quitting smoking, could prevent 80% of heart attacks.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm aimed to determine how healthy habits in adults, either alone or in concert, help prevent future heart attacks or myocardial infarctions.
Coronary heart disease rates have declined in many countries around the world, the authors write, thanks to advances in drugs that lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Because the vast population is at risk for cardiovascular disease, prescription drugs carry risks of side effects and high costs over the long term, making them unlikely to be an effective strategy for large-scale prevention, the researchers said. Previous studies by women and scientists of both genders have shown that lifestyle changes can significantly reduce heart attack risk, they wrote.
What the study examined
In 1997, men between the ages of 45 and 79 were recruited and their diet and activity habits were studied along with information such as their weight, family history of heart disease, and education level. A total of 20,721 men who did not suffer from cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes were observed for 11 years.
Five factors were examined: diet, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, abdominal fat, and daily physical activity level.
What the researchers found
Each of the five lifestyle habits and conditions was found to be beneficial in preventing future heart attacks. Just 1% of those in the study had an 80% reduction in heart attack risk, best among men who followed all five.
How do you rank heart attack prevention habits?
Quit smoking (36% lower risk): According to extensive previous research, smoking cessation is one of the most longevity-threatening habits you should quit. In this Swedish trial, men who had never smoked or quit smoking at least 20 years before the start of the study were 36% less likely to have a heart attack.
This surprises many previous studies, including the UK’s Million Women Study, which followed nearly 1.2 million women over 12 years. This long-term study found that quitting smoking between the ages of 30 and 40 led to an average of 11 years of life expectancy thanks to fewer heart attacks and less cancer and respiratory disease.
Eat a nutritious diet (20% lower risk): Again, a healthy plant-based diet helps prevent heart attacks (and not surprisingly, other age-related diseases like diabetes and cancer). The Swedish study defined a healthy diet using food scores recommended by the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which were “significantly predictive of mortality” and included:
Eat at least 5 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day
4 servings of whole grains
1 or more servings of low-fat dairy products
Two servings of healthy fish per week
Those who followed these guidelines best had a 20% lower risk of a first heart attack, even if they ate foods on the “not recommended” list, including red and processed meat, refined grains and sweets.