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Heart disease in women is preventable

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS. Coronary heart disease is still the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. This despite the widespread use of medications to control hypertension and cholesterol levels and improved procedures for dealing with heart attacks and congestive heart failure. Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have just released the results of a major study which provides conclusive proof that death from heart disease is almost entirely preventable - at least in the case of women.

The study involved 84,129 female nurses who were free of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes when the study began in 1980. By 1994 296 of the nurses had died from heart disease and 832 had suffered a non-fatal heart attack. The researchers collected detailed information about the nurses' diet and lifestyle throughout the 14-year follow-up period. At the end of the study they concluded that women who had a healthy lifestyle, ate a healthy diet, and did not smoke had a six times lower risk of coronary heart disease than did other women. This means that 82 per cent of all heart disease among women in the USA could be eliminated if all women were to adhere to a healthy lifestyle and avoid smoking.
The researchers singled out five factors which accounted for the 82 per cent decrease in the risk of dying from heart disease.

  • Avoidance of smoking
  • One half hour per day of vigorous physical activity (strenuous enough to build up a sweat)
  • A body mass index (BMI) of less than 25
  • Moderate daily alcohol consumption (corresponding to about one glass of wine per day)
  • A healthy diet

A healthy diet was defined as a diet low in trans-fatty acids, low in high glycemic index foods, high in cereal fiber, folate and marine n-3 fatty acids (fish oils), and with a high ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fat. Unfortunately, only about three per cent of the more than 84,000 study participants fell into the category which followed these lifestyle guidelines and thereby reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by over 80 per cent. Following just three of the guidelines (vigorous exercise, no smoking, and a reasonably healthy diet) also provided significant benefit (a risk factor of 57 per cent). The researchers did not include the potential benefit of consuming nuts, linolenic acid (flax oil), vitamin B6 or vitamin E. They point out that these "supplements" may be worth considering for women who prefer not to consume alcohol.
Stampfer, Meir J., et al. Primary prevention of coronary heart disease in women through diet and lifestyle. New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 343, July 6, 2000, pp. 16-22

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