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2000 Releases

Combination of Exercise, Healthy Diet and Not Smoking May Prevent the Vast Majority of Heart Disease

For immediate release: July 05, 2000

Boston, MA--Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have found that women who exercise, eat healthily, and don't smoke can dramatically reduce their risk of coronary heart disease. The finding is the latest result from the landmark BWH-based Nurses' Health Study, and one of the first reports from a large study that examined how a combination of well-known risk factors can affect overall heart disease risk. The findings are published in the July 6th issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"While we know that diet and lifestyle can affect risk of heart disease, most studies have focused on individual risk factors," according to lead study author Meir J. Stampfer, MD, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH. "We studied the impact a combination of individual behavioral risk factors has on heart disease risk, and found that 82 percent of heart attacks were attributable to failure to follow a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, good eating habits, and abstinence from smoking."

The researchers at BWH's Channing Laboratory found that women in the study's low-risk group were about 80 percent less likely to develop heart disease compared to the rest of the population. Included in the low-risk group were women who did not smoke cigarettes, were not overweight, maintained a particular healthy diet, exercised moderately or vigorously for half an hour a day, and consumed alcohol moderately.

Overweight was defined as a body mass index of 25 or more. Moderate alcohol consumption was defined as an average of one-half to two drinks per day. The six elements of a healthy diet in the study include: high intake of cereal fiber, folate, fish consumption, replacement of saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated, reduced intake of transfatty acids from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and reduced intake of refined carbohydrates.

These risk factors have previously been evaluated in the Nurses' Health Study and other studies. However, these previous findings all focused on one specific risk factor at a time. In the latest finding, women in the low-risk group had to meet criteria in several risk factors to be included in the low-risk group.

"Coronary heart disease remains the leading cause of death among U.S. men and women," added Dr. Stampfer. "The good news is that a healthy lifestyle can prevent the vast majority of this disease; the bad news is that so few Americans follow this sort of healthy lifestyle."

Dr. Stampfer emphasized that a healthy diet cannot replace the need for monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol, with drug therapy if needed.

The researchers followed 84,129 female participants in the Nurses' Health Study who were free from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes when they entered the study. Participants' diet and lifestyle information was updated periodically, and after 14 years of follow-up, 1,128 cases of major coronary heart disease were found in the group.

To view the article's abstract, please visit the NEJM site at: Primary Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease in Women through Diet and Lifestyle.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752

Christine Baratta, Brigham and Women's Hospital, (617) 732-5008
Tricia Oliver, Brigham and Women's Hospital, (617) 732-5008
Robert Hutchison, Brigham and Women's Hospital, (617) 732-5008