Most heart attacks in women are preventable: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study shows that women can significantly cut their risk of having a heart attack by eating right, drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking.

“If women adopted these five ‘rather simple’ healthy diet and lifestyle factors, most heart attacks (i.e., 77 percent) could be avoided,” Dr. Agneta Akesson from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, noted in an email to Reuters Health.

Akesson and colleagues studied the dietary and lifestyle patterns of 24,444 postmenopausal women enrolled in a clinical trial in 1997. At the time, none of the women had heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

By analyzing information contained in “food frequency” questionnaires, in which the women noted how often they ate 96 different foods, the researchers identified four major dietary patterns. They were: “healthy” (vegetables, fruits and legumes); “Western/Swedish” (red meat, processed meat, poultry, rice, pasta, eggs, fried potatoes and fish); “alcohol” (wine, liquor, beer and some snacks); and “sweets” (sweet baked goods, candy, chocolate, jam and ice cream).

Other information, including family history of heart disease, education level, physical activity, and body measurements, was also collected.

During an average of more than 6 years follow-up, 308 women had heart attacks. In the Archives of Internal Medicine, the investigators report that two types of dietary patterns - healthy and alcohol - were significantly associated with decreased risk of heart attack.

Women who maintained a healthy diet -- eating lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish and legumes -- and drank a moderate amount of alcohol (5 grams per day or less) had a 57-percent lower risk of having a first heart attack, compared to women who maintained a less healthy diet and lifestyle pattern.

Moreover, the women combining the healthy diet and moderate drinking with the three healthy lifestyle factors (not smoking, being physically active and avoiding too much weight gain) had a 92-percent lower risk of heart attack.

“The combined benefit of diet, lifestyle, and healthy body weight may prevent more than three of four cases of MI (heart attack) in our study population,” Akesson and colleagues report.

Heart disease is the most important cause of death and disability in women. With this study, Akesson said, “we provide data for the public showing ... how much you can (by yourself, based on your own motivation) decrease your risk of heart attack by the different healthy lifestyle factors that are not impossible to follow and, in particular, how much you gain by the combined healthy diet and lifestyle.”

SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, October 22, 2007.