Summer 2016

Stay Active for a Healthy Heart

Even for people in their 70s, exercise can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease

People in their 70s can likely lower their risk of stroke and heart attack with regular moderate exercise, such as walking, according to a Tufts study, which provides some of the first evidence that continuing to exercise as we age really does make a difference.

“If you’re more active, you’re going to do better—especially with respect to heart and brain health,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, who led the study, which was published in the journal Circulation. “It reassures people that even after age 75, being active can make a big difference.”

What’s more, the types of exercise the researchers studied were activities many senior citizens enjoy: walking, hiking, biking, swimming and mowing or raking the lawn. “You don’t need to be an ironman,” says Mozaffarian. “You can walk or garden and not only have fun, but know you’re protecting your heart and brain.”

Illustration: Elise Guillen

Researchers have known for some time that for most adults, regular exercise reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. But few studies focused on whether those benefits held true for older people, too. Mozaffarian and his research colleagues at the University of Porto in Portugal, the New York Academy of Medicine and the University of Washington believe theirs is the first large, community-based study to include enough participants over age 70 to provide statistically strong evidence of the rewards of exercise in older populations.

Mozaffarian and his colleagues used data collected on more than 4,200 men and women enrolled in the Cardiovascular Health Study from 1989 to 1999. The researchers looked at people with an average age of 73 who had no cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study. By the end of the 10-year study, the group had experienced more than 1,100 cardiovascular events.

After controlling for participants who reported known diseases or ill health, the researchers saw a clear link between more physical activity and lower instances of heart disease, stroke and coronary heart disease, even among the oldest people in the study. The scientists paid particular attention to walking, noting that while any walking at all appeared to lower risk, intensity and duration of physical activity still counted.

Study participants who were able to walk faster than three miles per hour experienced about half as many cardiovascular events as those who could manage just two miles per hour or less. Walkers who covered greater distances or spent more time at it appeared to lower their risk of heart attack and stroke even more.

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