For older adults, keeping your heart healthy may protect against disability

October 26, 2017, American Geriatrics Society

A healthy heart is important to the well-being of older adults. The American Heart Association (AHA) defines "ideal cardiovascular health" based on four health behaviors (current smoking, body mass index, physical activity, and healthy diet and three health factors (total cholesterol, blood pressure), and fasting blood glucose level).

Recently, a team of researchers studied older Latin Americans to examine the relationship between the AHA guidelines and disability. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Association.

The relationship is an important one to consider, since heart disease (also known as "") can lead to several disabling problems for . In fact, heart attacks and strokes are the first and third most common causes of disability in the US. The effect of a stroke on the brain is a leading cause of disability. Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of dementia and, for older adults, the disease also can make it difficult to function in daily life.

In their study, the researchers used information from the Chilean National Health Survey conducted between 2009-2010. 460 Chilean adults all over age 65 participated in the study.

The researchers measured AHA-identified heart-healthy behaviors:

  • Maintain a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 25. (BMI is a ratio between your weight and height.)
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, 5 or more days a week.
  • Don't smoke tobacco.
  • Eat a with plenty of fruits and vegetables and few to no processed or fast foods.

The researchers also measured these risk factor measurements of "ideal cardiovascular health":

  • Blood pressure of 120/80
  • Total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL
  • Fasting blood sugar under 100 mg/dL

In their study, the researchers created three different levels of health based on the participants' cardiovascular-healthy behaviors and heart :

  • People in the healthiest level had 5 to 7 of the behaviors/measurements.
  • People in the middle level had 3 to 4 healthy behaviors/measurements.
  • People in the lowest (most unhealthy) level had 0 to 2 behaviors/measurements.

The researchers compared the behaviors/measurements with disability among the participants. They learned that having an ideal level of reduced the chances for being disabled for older adults, even for those who had a history of heart disease or arthritis.

The researchers also found that Chilean women tended to be less active and more disabled than Chilean men.

Compared to people with an unhealthy level of behaviors/measurements, people in the two healthier groups had a lower risk for disability.

Finally, people who had an ideal BMI had lower disability. The researchers noted that obesity may quicken age-related declines in functional ability, and poses a threat to independence as we age. The authors suggest that public policies might promote ideal health behaviors early in life, helping people maintain their health into older adulthood.

Explore further: Maintaining healthy weight helps keep blood pressure low through life

More information: Antonio García-Hermoso et al, Relationship Between Ideal Cardiovascular Health and Disability in Older Adults: The Chilean National Health Survey (2009-10), Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2017). DOI: 10.1111/jgs.15139

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