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“We found that it’s possible to maintain the blood vessels of people in their 20s even into old age—mainly associated with having very healthy lifestyles.” Teemu J. Niiranen, MD, Boston University School of Medicine (Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, October 2017)

Young Arteries at 70 & Beyond

It’s par for the course to have stiffening arteries and rising blood pressure as we pass 50—but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the message from a study led by Teemu J. Niiranen, MD, a research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine, and published May 30, 2017, in the journal Hypertension. The key is healthy living, ideally starting when you’re young, but every step in the direction of a healthy lifestyle can help.

Dr. Niiranen and his team arrived at that conclusion by following the vascular health and lifestyle of 3,196 men and women ages 50 and older over 10 years.

They checked artery aging by looking at blood pressure and pulse wave velocity, a marker of artery stiffness. “If the pulse wave velocity is fast, that means you have stiff arteries,” Niiranen explained. “If the pulse wave travels slowly (because the artery absorbs part of the pulse wave), that means you have soft, elastic arteries.” Stiff arteries cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Lifestyle was assessed by looking at how the people scored on the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7.” These modifiable (ideally without medication) steps to a heart-healthy lifestyle are as follows:

1. Lose weight if you’re overweight (BMI over 25).

2. Maintain fasting blood sugar under 100.

3. Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, healthful dairy products, and poultry, while limiting fatty red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened items, and salt.

4. Stay physically active at least 150 minutes a week, or at an intense level for 75 minutes.

5. Maintain blood pressure at 120/80 or less (140/90 is high).

6. Keep cholesterol below 200.

7. Don’t smoke.

Overall, the researchers found that 566 or 18% of the men and women had healthy arteries, with prevalence decreasing from 30% in people aged 50 to 59 to only 1% in those 70 or older.

Maintaining health arteries paid big dividends, with 55% lower risk of heart attack or stroke over 10 years of follow-up, compared to those who failed to maintain healthy arteries. As noted, healthy lifestyle was the key factor. Genetics had little effect, but the odds of having healthy vascular aging were better for women.

“If people met six of the Life’s Simple 7 goals, they were 10 times more likely to have healthy vascular aging compared with people who met none or only one of the goals,” Dr. Niiranen related. “Staying lean and avoiding type 2 diabetes were the two most important modifiable factors,” he added.

Encouragingly, the odds of healthy vascular aging increased linearly until all of the goals were met. Each increase in Life’s Simple 7 score substantially increased the odds of healthy vascular aging (HVA).

“Although smoking, diet, and exercise may not be equally strong correlates of healthy vascular aging as obesity, diabetes mellitus, or [high cholesterol], our results showed a gradual stepwise increase in the odds of HVA across the whole range of Life’s Simple 7 score,” Niiranen and his team wrote. “Our results are, therefore, suggestive that controlling all the modifiable factors included in Life’s Simple 7 is important for achieving HVA.”

“We found that it’s possible to maintain the blood vessels of people in their 20s even into old age,” Dr. Niiranen emphasized. It may be unusual—only 1% over age 70—but it can be done. “Age-associated high blood pressure, for example, is not common in indigenous hunter-gatherer populations,” he noted.

Flexible arteries are in reach of nearly everyone. Healthy living is the key.

Be a 1%er

Dr. Niiranen acknowledges that it’s a challenge to keep blood vessels healthy in a Western culture where “poor diets and sedentary lifestyle” are the norm. He also says it’s possible—and his study showed it. So it doesn’t have to be that way. I know because I’ve been eating and living healthy for many decades. I’ll tell you a sensible way to do it.

My first treadmill time at the Cooper Clinic was a minute and half above the 99th percentile for men my age (50),
 demonstrating that a combination of strength and endurance training builds overall fitness, and
 suggesting that my arteries are healthy and flexible. Dr. Arnie Jensen is monitoring my vital signs.

Photo by Justin Joseph

I comply with all of the AHA’s Simple 7. My new Omron blood pressure monitor says my BP is 102/63 when relaxed sitting at my desk. On the other end, I’m also a “hot responder” with a BP of 172/90 when I feel threatened in a medical setting. While that’s probably not the “flexibility” they’re talking about in the Niiranen study, a CT angiogram at the Cooper Clinic in October of 2015 showed that I have “very large coronary arteries.”

Properly approached, compliance with the AHA’s Simple 7 is within reach of most people. The key is to take it one step at a time and build on success. Take your time and stay in your comfort zone. Think of each leg of the Simple 7 as a step toward healthier arteries and a longer life. As psychologists will tell you, success keeps you motivated and leads to more success.

* * *

Here are some articles to help you get started and keep going; you’ll see that most factors (everything but smoking) revolve around diet and exercise:

For the step by step process, see my FAQ on New Year’s resolutions: http://www.cbass.com/Faq(8).htm (scroll down)

For the latest on weight control, see Unlock Your Fat Cells: http://www.cbass.com/unlockfatcells.htm

For control of blood sugar and diabetes, see Miracle of Movement: http://www.cbass.com/MiracleMovement.htm

For more about diabetes—and healthy eating, see Milk in the Middle: http://www.cbass.com/milk.htm

On physical activity, see Get Up & Move: http://www.cbass.com/getupandmove.htm

On stress and rest, see How Much Exercise Is Too Much: http://www.cbass.com/howmuchexercise.htm

On cholesterol and lifestyle, see About HDL “Good” Cholesterol: http://www.cbass.com/HDLCholesterol.htm

Finally, on the psychology of healthy living, see Outlook Matters—My Story: http://www.cbass.com/outlookmatters.htm

*  *  *

Remember, if you think you can—and work hard—you probably can. Master the Simple 7 one at a time. You'll be surprised how each step leads to the next. Some may come in bunches.

You can make and keep your arteries young and flexible.

November 1, 2017

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