Research tells us that living in a Western culture makes it unlikely that people in their 70s can have arteries as healthy as those of people in their 20s and 30s. However, a new study suggests that this is not impossible, especially for people whose diet and lifestyle are in keeping with those recommended by the American Heart Association.

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The results of a new study suggest that it is possible for seniors to maintain a healthy heart as they age, by following recommendations from the American Heart Association.

The study – led by researchers collaborating on the Framingham Heart Study, from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University in Massachusetts – is published in the journal Hypertension.

First author Teemu J. Niiranen, a research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine, says that many people assume that “vascular aging” is a normal result of aging.

“As people get older, their arteries become stiffer and they develop high blood pressure. In fact, that’s what happens to most people beyond age 70. But it doesn’t have to happen,” he explains.

He and his colleagues suggest that a healthful diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stiff arteries, both of which raise the risk for heart disease.

The team studied nearly 3,200 people aged 50 and older who took part in the Framingham Heart Study, and they assessed how many participants met the requirements for healthy vascular aging.

The researchers defined healthy vascular aging as having normal blood pressure and the arterial stiffness of people aged 30 and under, which was assessed using a method called pulse-wave velocity.

The results showed that nearly 18 percent of participants (566 individuals) met the definition for healthy vascular aging.

The age group most likely to meet the requirements for healthy vascular aging were aged 50 to 59, in which 30 percent met the definition.

Only 1 percent of those aged 70 were found to have normal blood pressure and arteries similar to those of a 30-year-old, with women more likely to meet the standard than men.

Niiranen says that they also found that the participants with healthy vascular aging had a 55 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

He and his colleagues found that having a low body mass index (BMI) and not developing diabetes were the factors most strongly associated with healthy vascular function.

In fact, they found that participants who were meeting six out of the seven targets of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Life’s Simple 7 program were 10 times more likely to meet the requirements for healthy vascular aging than participants who met none or only one of them.

In 2010, the AHA for the first time linked “ideal cardiovascular health” to seven simple diet and lifestyle changes that people can make to reduce their risk of stroke and heart disease.

The AHA called the seven changes “Life’s Simple 7.” The following list summarizes the seven steps and their associated ideal heart health targets as set out in the association’s My Life Check toolkit:

  1. Manage blood pressure: keep it below 120/80 millimeters of mercury
  2. Control cholesterol: keep total cholesterol under 200 milligrams per deciliter
  3. Reduce blood sugar: maintain fasting blood glucose below 100 milligrams per deciliter
  4. Get active: every week, exercise at a moderate level for at least 150 minutes, or at an intense level for 75 minutes
  5. Eat better: adopt a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and skinless poultry and fish, and limits red meats, saturated and trans fats, salt, and sugar
  6. Manage weight: maintain a BMI of under 25 kilograms per square meter
  7. Stop smoking: ideal heart health target is “never smoked or having quit for more than 1 year”

The AHA launched the seven-step plan with two goals in mind: to improve the cardiovascular health of all people in the United States by 20 percent by 2020, and to reduce deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent by 2020.

Niiranen says that it is a challenge to keep blood vessels healthy in a Western culture, as it typically has “poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.”

“Age-associated high blood pressure, for example, is not common in indigenous hunter-gatherer populations,” he adds.

However, he suggests that the odds of maintaining healthy blood vessels – “even into old age” – increase by following Life’s Simple 7, and concludes that:

For the most part, it’s not genetic factors that stiffen the body’s network of blood vessels during aging. Modifiable lifestyle factors – like those identified in the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 – are the leading culprit.”

Teemu J. Niiranen

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