Public Release: 

For older adults, keeping your heart healthy may protect against disability

American Geriatrics Society

A healthy heart is important to the well-being of older adults. The American Heart Association (AHA) defines "ideal cardiovascular health" based on four health behaviors (current smoking, body mass index, physical activity, and healthy diet and three health factors (total cholesterol, blood pressure), and fasting blood glucose level).

Recently, a team of researchers studied older Latin Americans to examine the relationship between the AHA guidelines and disability. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Association.

The relationship is an important one to consider, since heart disease (also known as "cardiovascular disease") can lead to several disabling problems for older adults. In fact, heart attacks and strokes are the first and third most common causes of disability in the US. The effect of a stroke on the brain is a leading cause of disability. Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of dementia and, for older adults, the disease also can make it difficult to function in daily life.

In their study, the researchers used information from the Chilean National Health Survey conducted between 2009-2010. 460 Chilean adults all over age 65 participated in the study.

The researchers measured AHA-identified heart-healthy behaviors:

  • Maintain a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 25. (BMI is a ratio between your weight and height.)
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, 5 or more days a week.
  • Don't smoke tobacco.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and few to no processed or fast foods.

The researchers also measured these risk factor measurements of "ideal cardiovascular health":

  • Blood pressure of 120/80
  • Total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL
  • Fasting blood sugar under 100 mg/dL

In their study, the researchers created three different levels of health based on the participants' cardiovascular-healthy behaviors and heart health factors:

  • People in the healthiest level had 5 to 7 of the behaviors/measurements.
  • People in the middle level had 3 to 4 healthy behaviors/measurements.
  • People in the lowest (most unhealthy) level had 0 to 2 behaviors/measurements.

The researchers compared the behaviors/measurements with disability among the participants. They learned that having an ideal level of physical activity reduced the chances for being disabled for older adults, even for those who had a history of heart disease or arthritis.

The researchers also found that Chilean women tended to be less active and more disabled than Chilean men.

Compared to people with an unhealthy level of behaviors/measurements, people in the two healthier groups had a lower risk for disability.

Finally, people who had an ideal BMI had lower disability. The researchers noted that obesity may quicken age-related declines in functional ability, and poses a threat to independence as we age. The authors suggest that public policies might promote ideal health behaviors early in life, helping people maintain their health into older adulthood.

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This summary is from "Relationship between Ideal Cardiovascular Health and Disability in Older Adults: the Chilean National Health Survey (2009-2010)" (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.15139/full). It appears online ahead of print in the September 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Antonio García-Hermoso, PhD; Robinson Ramírez-Vélez, PhD; Rodrigo Ramírez-Campillo, PhD; Mikel Izquierdo, PhD.

About the Health in Aging Foundation

This research summary was developed as a public education tool by the Health in Aging Foundation. The Foundation is a national non-profit established in 1999 by the American Geriatrics Society to bring the knowledge and expertise of geriatrics healthcare professionals to the public. We are committed to ensuring that people are empowered to advocate for high-quality care by providing them with trustworthy information and reliable resources. Last year, we reached nearly 1 million people with our resources through HealthinAging.org. We also help nurture current and future geriatrics leaders by supporting opportunities to attend educational events and increase exposure to principles of excellence on caring for older adults. For more information or to support the Foundation's work, visit http://www.HealthinAgingFoundation.org.

About the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

Included in more than 9,000 library collections around the world, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS) highlights emerging insights on principles of aging, approaches to older patients, geriatric syndromes, geriatric psychiatry, and geriatric diseases and disorders. First published in 1953, JAGS is now one of the oldest and most impactful publications on gerontology and geriatrics, according to ISI Journal Citation Reports®. Visit wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/JGS for more details.

About the American Geriatrics Society

Founded in 1942, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is a nationwide, not-for-profit society of geriatrics healthcare professionals that has--for 75 years--worked to improve the health, independence, and quality of life of older people. Its nearly 6,000 members include geriatricians, geriatric nurses, social workers, family practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and internists. The Society provides leadership to healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public by implementing and advocating for programs in patient care, research, professional and public education, and public policy. For more information, visit AmericanGeriatrics.org.

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