Overhauling your entire lifestyle is a tough task, but a few key behavioral tweaks can make a big difference on health with lasting benefits, finds an intriguing new study.

Research has consistently examined the benefits of individual healthy behaviors, but this study focused on the combined effect of a few modest and realistically achievable lifestyle choices.

According to experts, regular exercise, eating a Mediterranean-style diet, keeping a normal weight and not smoking can protect heart health and increase life span.

The study found adhering to the four lifestyle behaviors shielded against coronary heart disease as well as the early buildup of calcium deposits in heart arteries.

It was observed that the changes slashed the odds of death from all causes by 80 percent over a period of eight years.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to find a protective association between low-risk lifestyle factors and early signs of vascular disease, coronary heart disease and death, in a single longitudinal evaluation,” said Haitham Ahmed, M.D., M.P.H., the lead author who is an internal medicine resident with the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins.

A large multi-center study
In a bid to determine whether healthy life style changes can lower death rates, the researchers conducted a large, multi-center study.

They tracked a sample of more than 6,200 men and women, aged 44 to 84 years including white, African-American, Hispanic and Chinese people for nearly eight years.

The subjects (recruited from six academic medical centers) were part of the continuing Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a prospective examination of the risk factors, prevalence and prevention of cardiovascular disease.

None of the participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease at the time of enrollment.

All the volunteers underwent coronary calcium screening using computed tomography (a CT scan) at the onset of the study to monitor early signs of calcium deposits (a risk factor for heart attack).

Over the course of the study, the volunteers were assessed to check if they had suffered a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest, chest pain, angioplasty or death due to coronary heart disease or other causes.

Additionally, each participant was assigned a health rating from zero to the healthiest 4 based on diet, body mass index (BMI), levels of exercise, and whether or not they smoked. Only two percent received the highest score.

Senior author of the study, Roger Blumenthal, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, director of the Ciccarone Center stated, “Of all the lifestyle factors, we found that smoking avoidance played the largest role in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease and mortality.

“In fact, smokers who adopted two or more of the healthy behaviors still had lower survival rates after 7.6 years than did nonsmokers who were sedentary and obese.”

Results of the study appear in an online article posted by the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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