Teen fitness lowers heart attacks later in life

January 13, 2014 - 06:16

Men who are in good physical shape as 18-year-olds are less likely to have serious heart problems later as adults.

Running less risks of future heart attacks. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Researchers at Sweden’s Umeå University have shown a link between men’s stamina at age 18 and the risk of heart attacks 30-40 years later.

Teenagers in good shape at the start of their adult lives run lesser risks of suffering these serious heart ailments. 

“We see a strong connection,” says Peter Nordström, a geriatrics professor and one of the researchers behind the study, published in the European Heart Journal.

Keep the weight down

A comparison between the most and least fit 18-year-olds showed that the latter run twice the risk of heart attacks three decades or so later.

The men in the study were followed up for 34 years on average, until January 2011, either until they suffered myocardial infarctions [heart attacks] or died. The researchers made adjustments for Body Mass Indexes [BMI], age and the years and places where the men had been examined for possible military service.

But doing lots of sports or aerobics as a teen doesn’t necessarily help if you don’t keep your weight down in the years ahead, according to the study.

“Even you are in really good shape, this doesn’t appear to compensate fully for being overweight or obese later, when it comes to the risk of an infarct,” says Nordström.

Well-trained adult males with BMIs that classify them as overweight or obese actually have a higher risk of heart attacks than unfit, thin men with normal body weights.

The professor thinks the findings point towards what some might find disconcerting, others good news: It’s more important to avoid being overweight or obese than to be very fit.

“But it’s even better if you are in the right weight range and physically fit,” says Nordström in a press release.

No cause and effect shown

Nordström points out that the study shows a connection between being fit and having a lower risk of heart attacks. But the design used by the study does not prove that workouts and condition training are what yield the benefit.

“The relationship between physical shape and heart disease is complex and can be influenced by factors we haven’t investigated in this study,” he said.

In addition, the researchers only had BMI, physical fitness and blood pressure numbers from the potential draftees, so nothing is known about how these risk factors changed later on in their lives.

And because the tests were conducted only on young men being considered for mandatory military service, there is no certainty that the results are transferable to women or to older men, the European Society of Cardiology points out.

Nordström also calls attention to the fact that some people are genetically less disposed toward suffering heart attacks and have the ability to stay in shape more easily than others.

Good habits that last?

Another possible factor is that people who have good physical exercise habits and are fit as 18-year-olds are more likely to stick to these routines later in life.

The Swedish scientists were not in a position to check that factor.

But they had plenty of data at their disposal – early physical fitness and later incidences of heart disease among nearly 750,000 men who were summoned to take physical examinations for the Swedish military draft from 1969 to 1984.

Nevertheless, it would be ill-advised to let your body decline after age 18 and hope the earlier fitness will carry you and your heart into a ripe old age.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling