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Study: To Halve Heart Risk, Need Many Healthy Habits

Doctors know that not smoking, controlling your weight and eating a healthy diet are each good for your heart. But a new study puts those factors and others together to see what impact a healthy lifestyle can have on the lifetime risk of heart failure.

Even with the best treatment and surgery, heart failure is fatal 20 to 50 percent of the time. In one of the biggest studies on heart disease, researchers at Harvard University have been keeping an eye on a group of more than 20,000 male physicians for more than two decades. Periodically, they've asked them questions about six healthy habits: keeping a normal weight, not smoking, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol moderately, eating a healthy breakfast, and eating fruits and vegetables. Individually, each of these factors has been shown to contribute to heart health.

But each habit by itself did not have a big effect on lifetime risk of heart failure, says Luc Djoussé, lead author of a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"If examined individually," he says, "you have a very minimal...decrease in lifetime risk. Only when you put them together [did you see] the bigger effect."

For example, never having smoked lowered the men's lifetime risk of heart failure by one percentage point, roughly from 14 to 13 percent, compared to those who had smoked. On its own, regular exercise took about three percentage points off their lifetime risk, from 14 to 11 percent. Participants who had none of the six healthy habits had about a 20 percent risk of developing heart failure at some point in their lives. Djoussé compared them to men who had several healthy habits.

"Those who adhered to four or more desirable factors cut the lifetime risk to 10 percent," he says. "They cut it by half."

A similar study on women published in the same issue of the journal came to similar conclusions. So, Djoussé says, a healthy lifestyle - and not just one or two healthy habits - will help keep the cardiologist away.