Study: When it comes to heart health in older women, all movement matters

Release Date: March 15, 2019

Portrait of UB researcher Michael LaMonte.
“Finding lower risk of cardiovascular disease associated with even light intensity, daily activities among older women in later life has immense public health implications.”
Michael LaMonte, research associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Light physical activity such as gardening, strolling through a park and folding clothes might be enough to significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among older women, according to a new study co-authored by a University at Buffalo researcher.

This kind of activity appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease events such as stroke or heart failure by up to 22 percent, and the risk of heart attack or coronary death, by as much as 42 percent, the study team reports.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, led the study, which was published today in JAMA Network Open. Michael LaMonte, research associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, is a co-author on the study.

In 2017, LaMonte was the lead author on a study that first reported that women who engaged in 30 minutes per day of light physical activity had a 12 percent lower risk of death. The new study is a follow-up to LaMonte’s, which included the UC San Diego team.

“Finding lower risk of cardiovascular disease associated with even light intensity, daily activities among older women in later life has immense public health implications,” said LaMonte, PhD, adding that light intensity physical activities are the most common forms of daily activity in older adults.

“Cardiovascular disease places an enormous burden on health care costs and services in older women. If confirmed by a randomized prevention trial, our results could be transformative to future public health and clinical recommendations on the amount, type and intensity of activity needed to prevent the major cause of death and disability in an aging society,” he said.

In the new study, researchers asked more than 5,500 women aged 63-97 from the Women’s Health Initiative to wear hip-mounted accelerometers — a device similar to a fitness tracker — that measured their movement 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days.

The accelerometers were also calibrated by age in order to distinguish between light, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity—a monitoring detail considered a major strength of the study. The researchers then followed the participants for almost five years, tracking cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks and strokes.

Researchers found that light physical activity mattered for heart health, even after accounting for age, multiple chronic illnesses like cancer or arthritis, difficulty with movements such as walking and other known risk factors.

The link was clear, said study author Andrea LaCroix, chair of the Division of Epidemiology and director of the Women’s Health Center of Excellence at UC San Diego. “The higher the activity, the lower the risk,” she said. “And the risk reduction showed regardless of the women’s overall health status, functional ability or even age. In other words, the association of light physical activity was apparent regardless of these other factors.”

This study is the first to show that higher levels of light physical activity are associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease events like heart attack and stroke in older women.

“Our study shows that replacing sitting with movement does not need to be done all at once to reap potential health benefits for women age 60 and older,” said John Bellettiere, PhD, lead author of the study and a research fellow in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego. “In fact, spreading sitting-interruptions throughout the day was significantly associated with lower risk of cardiovascular diseases.”

The results matter for a population that is expected to double within the next 15 years.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, and older women suffer profoundly: Nearly 68 percent of those between 60 and 79 have it. But so do older Americans in general. Of the estimated 85.6 million adults with at least one type of cardiovascular disease, almost half are age 60 or older.

Researchers need to conduct large randomized trials to determine if particular interventions might increase light physical activity in older women, and what effect that would have on cardiovascular disease rates. But the researchers said they see no reason not to encourage this group to increase their light physical activity, starting now.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, funded the study.

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