People with better heart health during young adulthood and middle age end up living longer and spending fewer years later in life with any kind of chronic disease, according to new research.
This prolonged good health also saves money on health care and reduces Medicare spending, the study team writes in the journal Circulation.
“As our population is getting older, it’s important to understand how we can help individuals maintain healthier lives as they age,” said lead author Norrina Allen of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
About 41 percent of the U.S. population will have cardiovascular disease by 2030, according to the American Heart Association. It is already the leading cause of death in the United States.
“We need to prevent the development of risk factors and disease earlier in life,” she told Reuters Health. “We want to emphasize the focus on prevention and maintaining health earlier, rather than waiting until it’s already become a problem.”
Allen and colleagues analyzed data from the Chicago Heart Association Detection Project, a 40-year study that recruited participants 18 years and older from 1967 to 1973. The current study focused on 25,800 people who had turned 65 by 2010, which represented about 65 percent of the original participants.
The researchers looked at heart health during younger years, categorizing participants according to whether they had one or more heart risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol or body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight relative to height, and whether they had diabetes or smoked.
Six percent of the participants had none of these risk factors in early adulthood and middle age, 19 percent had elevated readings of one unfavorable factor, 40 percent had one risk factor measurement that was high and 35 percent had two or more high risk factor measurements.
People with none of these problems were considered to have “favorable” cardiovascular health. With one or more, their heart health was rated as less and less favorable. Researchers also looked at Medicare claims for treatments associated with any of the unfavorable conditions.
They found that people with favorable heart health at younger ages lived about four years longer altogether, survived about five years longer before developing a chronic illness such as cancer or heart failure and spent 22 percent less of their senior years with a chronic disease compared to people with two or more heart risk factors earlier in life. They also saved almost $18,000 in Medicare costs.
“We tend to not focus on our cardiovascular health until later in life,” Allen said. “It’s hard to promote that long-term vision of thinking 30 years down the road.”
The research team plans to study other measures that could affect health from middle to older age, such as socioeconomic status and health insurance coverage.
Future studies should also look at broader prevention efforts, such as health promotion in the workplace, said Khurram Nasir of the Center for Healthcare Advancement and Outcomes in Coral Gables, Florida. He wasn’t involved with the study but co-wrote an accompanying editorial.
“Nearly 60 percent of the entire U.S. population is in the workforce, and prevention through worksite wellness programs provides an opportunity to reach many Americans who would have been hard to recruit otherwise,” Nasir told Reuters Health by email.
Plus, larger companies pay more than $578 billion per year in healthcare expenditures to take care of employees, a large portion of which is related to preventable conditions, Nasir added. About 15 percent of U.S. employers currently offer workplace wellness programs.
“Upstream investment in these wellness and prevention programs can potentially result in substantial savings in health care expenditures,” he said. “In fact, a recent study we did showed the benefits can be realized earlier in young employees with good heart health.”
In addition to workplace programs, Nasir advocates personal responsibility. “The message here is crystal clear,” he said. “Eat smart, move more, don’t smoke, and maintain an ideal body weight. This is the path to healthy aging and will also be light on your wallet.”