It is well known that as a person ages, their risk of heart attack increases. But a new study suggests that, for individuals aged 65 and over, maintaining or increasing physical activity can reduce this risk and improve overall heart health.

The research team, led by Luisa Soares-Miranda, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, and the University of Porto in Portugal, recently published their findings in Circulation – a journal of the American Heart Association.

The researchers analyzed 985 adults who were a part of the Cardiovascular Health Study – a large community-based study of heart disease risk in people aged 65 and older. All participants were an average age of 71 at study baseline.

Subjects were required to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours a day for 5 years. During the study period, participants’ heart rate variability was recorded. This is the time difference between each heartbeat.

According to Soares-Miranda, these time differences are influenced by heart health and the nervous system, which regulates the heart.

“Early abnormalities in this system are picked up by changes in heart rate variability, and these changes predict the risk of future heart attacks and death,” she explains.

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Women who increased their walking distance or pace during the study period had better heart rate variability.

The team found that the more physical activity participants engaged in over the study period, the better their heart rate variability.

People who boosted their physical activity during the study period – by increasing their walking distance or pace – had better heart rate variability, compared with those who reduced their walking distance or pace.

Calculating the difference between the highest and lowest levels of physical activity, the researchers estimate that those with the highest levels may reduce their risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death by 11%.

There is no doubt that any type of physical activity is better than nothing, but Soares-Miranda says that, based on the team’s results, maintaining or boosting physical activity as we get older has additional heart benefits.

“Our results also suggest that these certain beneficial changes that occur may be reduced when physical activity is reduced,” she says, adding:

So if you feel comfortable with your usual physical activity, do not slow down as you get older – try to walk an extra block or walk at a faster pace. If you’re not physically active, it is never too late to start.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on UK research that delivered a similar message. For this study, led by University College London, researchers tracked the health of almost 3,500 people aged between their mid-50s and early 70s for an 8-year period.

The team found that participants defined as “healthy agers” – those who did not develop major chronic disease, depressive symptoms, physical or cognitive impairment – were those who engaged in regular exercise.

Doireann Maddock, senior cardiac nurse at the UK’s British Health Foundation who helped fund this study, believes it is never too late to start exercising. But she adds the earlier we start, the better.

“It’s well worth getting into the habit of keeping active, as we know it can help reduce the risk of heart disease along with many other conditions,” she adds.

“Every 10 minutes counts, so even hopping off the bus a couple of stops early or taking a brisk walk on your lunch break will help.”