No one plans to die suddenly from a heart problem, but unfortunately about 300,000 Americans do every year. A sudden fatal heart problem often strikes without any warning signs or symptoms. However, a recent Harvard University study suggests most cardiac deaths can be prevented.

Primary prevention is one strategy to lessen the risk of sudden cardiac deaths. The Harvard study estimates that 81% of all cases of sudden death are potentially preventable by making positive lifestyle changes.

The study included 81,722 women. Their lifestyles were assessed every 2 to 4 years over a follow-up period of 26 years. Researchers found four lifestyle practices strongly and independently linked to a decreased risk of sudden death:
•  Not smoking
•  Exercising regularly, 30-plus minutes daily
•  Maintaining weight in a healthy range (BMI less than 25)
•  Eating a healthy diet (high adherence to the Mediterranean diet)

Taking a Closer Look
Researchers compared the risk of sudden death with persons who had none of these healthy lifestyle factors and found that:
•  Having even one healthy lifestyle factor decreased the risk of sudden death by nearly half (48%)
•  Having two healthy lifestyle factors cut the risk by 59%
•  Three healthy lifestyle factors cut the risk of sudden death by 67%
•  And four healthy lifestyle factors cut the risk of sudden death by an astounding 92%
•  Even among nonsmokers, following the other three healthy lifestyles would still prevent 78% of all sudden deaths.

Healthy Choices Pay Off
The message is clear. If you want to keep your heart beating and enjoy life for years to come, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, and don’t smoke. These healthy lifestyle factors will go a long way to helping you live a long life.

When looking at diet, the researchers identified specific eating habits that were protective to the heart and health. These included eating more than the average amount of:
•  Vegetables
•  Fruits
•  Whole grains
•  Nuts
•  Legumes
•  Fish
•  Healthy fats (unsaturated fatty acids in place of saturated fats)

Diet & Exercise Data
In addition, eating less red and processed meats and avoiding a heavy intake of alcohol (moderate drinking was defined as 0.5 to 1 drink/day) was also linked to decreased risk factors for sudden death.

Of the four healthy lifestyle factors identified in the study, regular exercise was the most important. Regular exercise prevented nearly twice as many deaths as any of the other healthy lifestyle factors in the study.

In the United States, the prevalence of poor health practices is quite high. Poor lifestyle habits are directly related to a high rate of sudden death. Of the 81,722 women who participated in the study, researchers found that:
•  60% were overweight or obese
•  78% got little or no regular exercise
•  60% had poor diets
•  20% smoked

To encourage healthy lifestyle choices in your organization, you might create a workplace walking group, offer healthy snacks in your cafeteria or vending machines, and encourage smokers to kick the habit. Research shows that when people make positive lifestyle changes, health benefits will follow. The sooner people adopt a healthy lifestyle, the better they will feel, and the longer they can expect to live a healthy, productive life.

Source: Journal of the American Medical Association. 2011;306(1):62-69, July