The consensus has been that when you get older, your arteries will clog with plaque, and your odds of having a heart attack or stroke increase.
Except, maybe not.
According to a new study published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension, it’s possible to have the arteries of a healthy 20-year-old into your 70s.
It’s not easy, given the Western emphasis on more and bigger food portions, with plenty of sugar and fat.
But it is possible, according to Dr. Teemu J. Niiranen, a study author, and research fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine.
“A healthy lifestyle is the only way to maintain normal vascular structure,” Niiranen told Healthline.
According to Niiranen, Western culture often means a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.
Those are factors that make it hard to maintain healthy blood vessels.
“Age-associated high blood pressure, for example, is not common in indigenous hunter-gatherer populations,” he said.
What researchers discovered
The study team looked at 3,196 adults, ages 50 and older, from the Framingham Heart Study.
They defined healthy vascular aging for people 50 years or older as having both normal blood pressure and pulse-wave velocity near the level of healthy people age 30 or younger. (Pulse-wave velocity measures stiffness in the blood vessels.)
Researchers found that 17 percent (or 566 people) in the study group had healthy vascular aging. The group most likely to have healthy vascular aging was the youngest.
More than 30 percent of those in the sample 50 to 59 years of age met the standards for healthy vascular aging. Only 1 percent of those 70 and older had healthy vascular aging, and they were more likely to be women.
“What was unusual about this study is we were looking at healthy people instead of sick ones. We had thought that getting hypertension was pretty much inevitable. But we saw it was possible to maintain the functionality of 20-year-olds into your 70s,” Niiranen said.
“Vascular aging is thought of as normal aging. As people get older, their arteries become stiffer and they develop high blood pressure,” Niiranen added in a press release. “In fact, that's what happens to most people beyond age 70. But it doesn't have to.”
Lifestyle, not genetics
Niiranen explained that for the most part, it is not genetic factors that affect the body's network of blood vessels during aging.
It is lifestyle factors — all of them modifiable — that are the leading culprits.
Niiranen acknowledged that there is still no magic pill that helps achieve healthy vascular aging.
He pointed to the Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 as a guideline for increasing one’s odds of maintaining healthy blood vessels even into old age. They are:
- Manage your blood pressure.
- Manage your cholesterol.
- Reduce blood sugar.
- Get active.
- Eat better.
- Lose weight.
- Stop smoking.
“Each of the seven requires some work,” agreed Dr. Richard Becker, a spokesman for the AHA, and professor of medicine and chief of the College of Cardiovascular Health and Disease at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“But we [medical professionals] can do better,” he told Healthline. “We can help people get started, help them work through challenges. We need more doctors willing to help.”
Take little steps
Both Becker and Niiranen stress that the Life’s Simple 7 program is a self-help project, and the best way to approach it is doing a little at a time.
“Each individual person has some say into their body weight, their sugar consumption, their smoking habits,” Becker said. “It’s the best way to translate this to everyday people who ask, ‘How do I start?’”
Go for a walk. Skip dessert. Cut down on smoking.
The doctors say that as a person achieves some success with one measure, they will be motivated to tackle a second, and then a third.
“What I learned from this study is that it has always been assumed everyone will develop high blood pressure and have some degree of age-related vascular health problems,” Becker said. “This study suggests otherwise.”
In fact, Niiranen’s group found that those who achieved six out of seven of the healthy heart goals were 10 times more likely to achieve healthy vascular aging than those who achieved zero to one of the measures.
It turned out that, of the seven, the most important factors related to achieving healthy vascular function were staying lean, or having a low body mass index, and avoiding diabetes, according to Niiranen.
“It’s almost impossible to completely reverse vascular damage once the process is under way,” Niiranen said of people with high blood pressure.
“Most of us succumb to the Western lifestyle,” he noted.
Nevertheless, he thinks the study brings good news. “It has been thought that if you lived long enough, vascular structure damage was inevitable. But this is a positive message of what keeps you healthy,” he said. “This news is supportive and comforting.”
And not fattening.