A Healthy Lifestyle Can Compensate for Genetic Risk of Heart Attack

A group of women stretching outside, in the grass.

We can control many of the factors that increase our chance of having a heart attack, such as smoking, physical fitness and diet. But genetic predisposition is a major risk factor that we tend to think of as fixed. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at whether that predisposition can be mitigated by our lifestyle choices or if the risk in our DNA is set in stone.

Analyzing data from four major studies, the researchers found that participants’ genetic predispositions for heart attack and coronary artery disease could increase their risk of a cardiac event by up to 90%. They assessed the participants’ lifestyles in terms of smoking, body mass index, physical activity level and diet to generate a general health score. This score was matched to the genetic risk profile and compared with the incidence of those adverse cardiac events over the long term.

It was clear that these events happened more often in participants with a high genetic risk. However, having a healthier lifestyle score was associated with up to a 50% decrease in this risk. As Sekar Kathiresan, MD, a lead researcher of the study, commented, “Some people may feel they cannot escape a genetically determined risk for heart attack, but our findings indicate that following a healthy lifestyle can powerfully reduce genetic risk.”

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