Trying to maximize your personal health potential can be a maddening exercise. One minute, somebody is telling you to eat right, exercise and what not while another is trying to sell you a personal genome test kit to discover which hereditary health risks you’re most susceptible to. So which is it? Does a healthy lifestyle determine the outcomes or are we all on a road predetermined by our lineage?
According to two recent studies conducted at Northwestern and presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, the answer is in the personal choices, at least when it comes to heart disease.
Determining one’s genetic predisposition to a disease that covers such a wide number of conditions is difficult to begin with. Earlier this year, scientists announced nine specific genetic markers that can indicate a high risk. Other studies have revealed single gene mutations potentially responsible for levels of HDL – or good cholesterol – while still more have uncovered dozens of potential genetic markers that could influence heart health. And with more studies investigating our genomes on a daily basis, the confusion is sure to mount.
However, luckily for us, none of it really matters. No matter your genetics, a healthy lifestyle is still the most important predictor for a healthy heart, and it’s not even a close race.
One Northwestern study followed 2,336 people between the ages of 18 and 30 for a full two decades. It tracked their diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, weight, blood pressure and glucose levels. Now, in order to ensure the best chance of a healthy heart, there are five lifestyle factors that one must follow. These are not smoking, low or no alcohol intake, weight control, physical activity and a healthy diet.
The participants that followed all five guidelines had a 60 percent chance of maintaining a low-risk profile for heart disease. And as the group dropped guidelines, their chances plummeted as well. Four guidelines followed equaled a 37 percent chance of low-risk, three resulted in 30 percent, two was 17 percent, and those who followed just one or none had only a 6 percent chance of being at low-risk.
A second separate study backed up these results. By following three generations of families and looking at how many where in ideal heart health condition at the critical ages of 40 and 50, the researchers determined once again that the individual choices made far outweighed the genetics inherited through family trees.
So stop making excuses. Just because your father had a heart attack or your uncle died of heart disease does not mean you are destined to the same. The choices you make every single day can keep you at low-risk. And those lucky individuals live longer, have a better quality of life and generate lower Medicare bills.
So is that McDonalds and cigarette really worth it?