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New research finds that Life’s Essential 8 behaviors may add years to your life by slowing biological aging and reducing your risk of heart disease. Lucy Lambriex/Getty Images
  • A new study says heart-healthy habits may reduce the risk of heart disease and death.
  • Life’s Essential 8 behaviors were also linked with having a younger biological age.
  • These lifestyle choices may alter DNA methylation, a factor in cellular aging.
  • Taking slow, manageable steps is the best way to start making lifestyle changes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites statistics showing that heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the nation among women, men, and most racial and ethnic groups.

In fact, the agency states that heart disease accounted for about 20% of all deaths in the year 2021.

One of several risk factors for heart disease is age.

However, a May 29, 2024, study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that heart-healthy behaviors and risk factor management can reduce people’s risk for heart disease and death from any cause, including heart disease and stroke, regardless of age.

Further, these lifestyle habits — which the American Heart Association refers to as “Life’s Essential 8” — were associated with people having a younger biological age, meaning that their cells were healthier than might be expected for their chronological age.

The study’s goal was to learn whether a process called “DNA methylation,” which is known to regulate gene expression, could influence cell aging and people’s risk of dying.

The research team examined data for 5,682 adults, over half of whom were women (56%), and with an average age of 56.

These people were interviewed in addition to physical exams and laboratory tests being run. They were also assessed using the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 tool.

Life’s Essential 8 includes four behaviors:

  • nightly hours of sleep
  • whether people smoke
  • how much physical activity they get
  • how well they eat

It also includes four clinical measurements:

  • body mass index (BMI)
  • blood sugar
  • cholesterol
  • blood pressure

Based on all of these factors, people were assigned a score on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the best possible score.

The researchers didn’t stop here, however. They also used four other tools to estimate biological age based on DNA methylation and a fifth tool to gauge people’s genetic tendency toward rapid biological aging.

Study participants were followed for the next 11-14 years to see if they developed cardiovascular disease or died.

After the investigators analyzed the data, they found that the higher people scored on Life’s Essential 8, the lower their risk was for developing cardiovascular disease.

Each 13-point increase in their score yielded a reduction in developing cardiovascular disease (35%), dying from cardiovascular disease (36%), and dying from any cause (29%)

Also, those who were genetically more at risk for faster biological aging were more greatly impacted by their Life’s Essential 8 score. The study authors believe this might potentially be due to DNA methylation.

They estimated that about 20% of the link between Life’s Essential 8 and cardiovascular disease outcomes was caused by how these factors affect DNA methylation.

On the other hand, in people with greater genetic risk, this figure was nearly doubled.

Khashayar Hematpour, MD, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at UTHealth Houston, explained that a major reason for aging is that over time, our DNA, which he describes as the “core genetic material,” goes through changes by binding to other molecules.

“This study suggests that the heart-healthy behaviors can potentially reverse the DNA methylation and therefore reverse the aging process,” he said.

Kubanych Takyrbashev, MD, Health & Wellness Advisor at NAO, further explained that methylation is a type of epigenetic modification that involves the addition of methyl groups to DNA molecules.

“These alterations in DNA methylation can influence gene expression, ultimately impacting cellular aging processes,” he said.

Takyrbashev pointed to exercise as one example of a factor that can induce positive changes in DNA methylation patterns, thereby slowing aging.

“By promoting favorable alterations in gene expression, exercise supports cellular health and longevity,” he stated.

Eating a balanced diet is also crucial, he said, “Certain nutrients, such as polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids, found in such a diet have been proven to modulate gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms.”

Michael O. McKinney, MD, a primary physician at Healthy Outlook in Jacksonville, Florida, said that taking small, manageable steps toward your goal is key.

“For example, try to walk, cycle, or swim at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week,” he advised. “To achieve this goal, it is advisable to break the time into 30-minute sessions and do it five times a week.”

You can also try incorporating more physical activity into your daily routine, for example, by taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking on your lunch break.

When it comes to diet, McKinney said whole foods — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats like those found in nuts and avocados — should make up a major part of it.

“Furthermore, it may support heart health if we cut back on processed foods, sugary drinks as well as excessive amounts of red meat,” he stated.

Another important measure, according to McKinney is to quit smoking.

“Get medication through smoking cessation programs or counseling services with nicotine replacement therapies being used as a means,” he suggested. “Healthcare providers and communities may provide substantial help toward quitting smoking successfully.”

McKinney said it’s also essential to incorporate stress management into your daily routine. Activities like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can help relieve anxiety.

“Stress levels can also be reduced by spending several minutes every day practicing mindfulness, which improves overall well-being,” he said.

Finally, McKinney stressed the importance of seeing your doctor regularly to check your total cholesterol, HDL-C (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, aka the “good cholesterol), and blood glucose.

“By slowly assimilating these habits into their daily life, people can greatly improve their cardiovascular health and perhaps reverse parts of cellular aging,” he concluded.

Scientists found that heart-healthy behaviors — Life’s Essential 8 — were linked with reduced cellular aging.

Also, people were less likely to develop heart disease or die from it or any other cause.

These lifestyle factors may support cellular health by preventing methylation, which can influence gene expression.

Experts say the best way to adopt Life’s Essential 8 behaviors is by taking small, manageable steps toward your goals.

Making these habits a regular part of your daily life may help improve your heart health and slow biological aging.