NOV 22, 2016 7:04 AM PST

Even if you inherit the risk for heart disease, a healthy lifestyle can prevent it

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
Some people inherit genes that increase their risk for heart disease. Can a traditional “healthy” lifestyle prescribed to most at-risk patients help prevent heart disease even if an individual is genetically predispositioned?
Source: Stony Brook University
Scientists from the Center for Human Genetic Research at the Massachusetts General Hospital think so. In the words of the study’s senior author, Sekar Kathiresan, MD: “DNA is not destiny.”

“DNA is not destiny.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) defines four distinct lifestyle factors that reduce an individual’s risk of heart disease: no current smoking, lack of obesity (body mass index below 30), physical exercise at least once a week, and a healthy dietary pattern. This so-called “healthy” lifestyle can, according to the recent Massachusetts General Hospital study, “cut in half the probability of a heart attack or similar event.”

“Many individuals … have looked on genetic risk as unavoidable, but for heart attack that does not appear to be the case,” Kathiresan said. In the new study, Kathiresan and his team of researchers analyzed clinical and genetic data from over 55,000 participants from four large-scale studies, three of which followed participants for almost two decades.

Each participant was assigned a genetic risk score that took into account whether they had any of 50 different gene variants past research has linked to an increased risk for heart attack. Then, compared with the four AHA-defined lifestyle factors, participants were also given a lifestyle score: favorable, intermediate, or unfavorable.

Researchers then combined the analyses of genetic risk score and lifestyle score to investigate their relation to incidence of heart attack and other adverse cardiac events. They found, as expected, that a higher genetic risk score significantly increased the risk of adverse cardiac events, more so than other risk factors like family history and high levels of LDL cholesterol. However, each of the healthy lifestyle factors proved to reduce risk, with the favorable group reducing the most and the unfavorable group reducing the least.

"Some people may feel they cannot escape a genetically determined risk for heart attack, but our findings indicate that following a healthy lifestyle can powerfully reduce genetic risk," said Kathiresan. "Now we need to investigate whether specific lifestyle factors have stronger impacts and conduct studies in more diverse populations.”

The study was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital, American Heart Association
About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog:
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