We all know that a healthy lifestyle can keep heart disease at bay. But if like many of us you spent your 20s scarfing down pizza, throwing back a few too many beers and aggressively avoiding the gym, don't despair.
People who drop bad habits in their late 30s and 40s can reduce their risk of developing coronary artery disease, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Circulation.
"And by the same token, if you get to adulthood with a healthy lifestyle, that doesn't mean you're home free," says Bonnie Spring, director of the Center for Behavior and Health at Northwestern University and the lead author of the study. Those who pick up unhealthy behaviors in middle age up their risk of developing heart disease, the study found.
The researchers looked at data from 5,000 participants in the larger Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. They evaluated the participants' body-mass index and diet, checked how much they exercised and whether they smoked or drank excessively.
To gauge heart health, the researchers also measured calcium buildup in people's arteries and the thickness of inner artery walls — both early signs that heart disease may be on its way.
The participants were first assessed when they were between 18 and 30 years old and then again 20 years later. Forty percent picked up bad habits as they aged. But 25 percent made heart-healthy lifestyle changes. And that's great news, Spring tells Shots.
"These changes were not that dramatic," Spring says. Even slight increases in physical activity or slight adjustments in diet had an effect. "These are the kinds of things mere mortals can do," she says. In other words, there's no need to suddenly take up CrossFit or go vegan.
This also doesn't mean that 20-somethings should give up on exercise and start on an all-bacon diet. "To be continuously having a healthy lifestyle is the best," Spring says. "But the problem is, almost nobody does."
Only 10 percent of young adults in this study were healthy by all five measures the researchers evaluated.
Too often, Spring notes, medical professionals think that by middle age the damage has already been done. "That kind of perfectionism can be very demoralizing," she says. "We wanted to give a more encouraging message."