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Lifestyle Changes Can Prevent Heart Disease, Even for People With Family History

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that even people with high genetic risk factors for heart disease can lower their risk of actually developing a heart condition by making lifestyle changes.
  • Researchers found that lifestyle changes can go a long way toward lowering risk.
  • The American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 guidelines can help.

Having genetic risk factors for heart disease doesn’t mean you’re destined to develop the condition. New research has found that following heart health guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) can help lower your risk.

The study, which was published in the journal Circulation, analyzed data from more than 10,000 participants age 45 and older who didn’t have coronary heart disease.

Researchers studied the differences in each participant’s lifetime risk of developing coronary heart disease and their adherence to the AHA Life’s Simple 7 guidelines.

The lifetime risk that participants with high genetic risk would develop heart disease was about 40% compared to 20% for people with low genetic risk, according to the researchers.

The study found that participants who were at high risk of heart disease but didn’t follow the AHA guidelines closely had an increased risk of 67%. Those who followed the guidelines were able to drop their risk to as low as 24%.

“Ideal adherence to Life’s Simple 7 recommendations was associated with lower lifetime risk of coronary heart disease for all individuals, especially in those with high genetic susceptibility,” the researchers concluded.

What Are the AHA Life’s Simple 7 Guidelines?

Life’s Simple 7 is the top seven risk factors for heart disease that people can improve through lifestyle changes. They include:

  • Smoking status. Smokers have a much higher risk of developing heart disease than non-smokers.
  • Physical activity. People should aim to do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week.
  • Weight. The AHA suggests keeping track of how many calories you take in vs. how many calories you expend.
  • Diet. The AHA recommends having 2.5 cups of vegetables and two cups of fruits a day, along with six servings of grains (at least half should be whole grains), two servings of lean proteins, and three tablespoons of healthy oils.
  • Blood glucose. Know your blood glucose level and how to control it if you have a condition like diabetes.
  • Cholesterol. Know your cholesterol levels and try to minimize sources of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your diet.
  • Blood pressure. The AHA recommends aiming for a blood pressure of less than 120 over 80.

Lifestyle Factors Are Crucial to Heart Health

Natalie Hasbani, MPH, lead author of the study and a research assistant and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, told Verywell that she decided to study how much of an impact lifestyle factors could have on heart health to help translate it for people who have high genetic risk factors.

“We’re at a place in research where genetic information is becoming more widely available,” she said. “The struggle with that is what does that mean for me if I’m high risk?”

Hasbani said her work shows that “environment and lifestyle plays a strong role in heart disease,” even for those with high genetic risk factors.

“It’s never too late to start making changes to your lifestyle as far as physical activity, smoking, and diet goes,” she said. “Talk to your doctor and try to make informed decisions based on your risk.”

Julius Gardin, MD, interim director of the division of cardiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said genetic predictors don’t necessarily determine one’s heart health outcome.

“The data is clear that, even if you weren’t so careful in the first 20 to 40 years of your life and you’re high risk, there’s still hope for you to feel better, live longer, and avoid cardiovascular events if you make healthy changes,” he said.

What This Means For You

You can lower your risk of heart disease, even if you have a family history of the disease, by making certain lifestyle changes. Talk to your doctor about your personal risk and tweaks you can make to make your heart as healthy as possible.

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2 Sources
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  1. Hasbani NR, Ligthart S, Brown MR, et al. American Heart Association’s life’s simple 7: lifestyle recommendations, polygenic risk, and lifetime risk of coronary heart diseaseCirculation. Published online January 31, 2022. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.121.053730

  2. American Heart Association. Life’s simple 7.