Simple fitness test could predict long-term risk for heart attack, stroke in middle-aged people, researchers find

Drs. Jarett Berry (right) and Sachin Gupta found that middle-aged men's risk of heart disease is closely tied to their fitness level.

DALLAS – May 18, 2011 – In two separate studies, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have found that physical fitness levels in middle-age can help predict the risk of dying of heart attack or stroke decades later for men and could be an early indicator of cardiovascular disease for women.

In one recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers analyzed the heart disease risk of 45-, 55- and 65-year-old men based on their fitness level and traditional risk factors, such as age, systolic blood pressure, diabetes, total cholesterol and smoking habits. They found that low levels of midlife fitness are associated with marked differences in the lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease.

“Heart disease tends to cluster at older ages, but if you want to prevent it, our research suggests that the prescription for prevention needs to occur earlier – when a person is in his 40s and 50s,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, assistant professor of internal medicine and a corresponding author on both studies.

Researchers in this study found that a higher fitness level lowered the lifetime risk of heart disease even in people with other risk factors.

In a separate study in Circulation, UT Southwestern researchers found that the same treadmill test predicts how likely a person is to die of heart disease or stroke more accurately than assessing the risk using only typical prediction tools such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Both investigations used information gathered by Dallas’ Cooper Institute, which has 40 years of data on runners and other fit volunteers. UT Southwestern has a partnership with the institute, the preventive medicine research and educational nonprofit located at the Cooper Aerobics Center, to develop a joint scientific medical research program aimed at improving health and preventing a wide range of chronic diseases. The institute maintains one of the world’s most extensive databases – known as the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study – which includes detailed information from more than 250,000 clinic visits that has been collected since Dr. Kenneth Cooper founded the institute and clinic in 1970.

Heart disease is a leading killer in industrialized nations and the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S. Women younger than 50 are particularly difficult to assess for long-term cardiovascular risk.

“Nearly all women under 50 years of age are at low risk for heart disease,” Dr. Berry said. “However, as women get older, their risk increases dramatically. In our study, we found that low levels of fitness were particularly helpful in identifying women at risk for heart disease over the long term.”

For decades, scientists have tried to improve their ability to determine which patients are at highest cardiovascular disease risk. Blood-based and imaging techniques have been used to try to improve risk prediction, but fitness has not been examined until now, Dr. Berry said.

In the JACC study, researchers evaluated more than 11,000 men tested before 1990 – women were excluded because of the low number of participants and cardiovascular death rates – and found 1,106 who died of heart attack or stroke during the study period. They measured participant fitness levels and traditional risk factors for heart disease. Within each age group, higher levels of fitness were associated with lower levels of traditional risk factors.

For the Circulation study, researchers examined more than 66,000 participants without cardiovascular disease, ages 20 to 90. They were then followed until death or the end of the study period; follow-up lasted up to 36 years. There were 1,621 cardiovascular deaths during the study. The researchers found that by adding fitness to the traditional risk factors, they significantly improved their ability to classify participants’ short-term (10 years) and long-term (25 years) risk.

Researchers next will try to extend the JACC investigation parameters to women.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the Circulation study were Dr. Sachin Gupta, a postdoctoral trainee in internal medicine and lead author; Dr. Anand Rohatgi, assistant professor of internal medicine; Colby Ayers, faculty associate in internal medicine; Dr. Amit Khera, assistant professor of internal medicine; Dr. Mark Drazner, professor of internal medicine and medical director of the Heart Failure, Left Ventricular Assist Devices and Cardiac Transplant Program; and Dr. James de Lemos, associate professor of internal medicine. Researchers from the Cooper Clinic in Dallas and Stanford University also participated in the research.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the JACC study were Drs. Susan Lakoski, assistant professor of internal medicine; and Drs. de Lemos, Gupta, Khera and Rohatgi. Researchers from the Cooper Clinic, Stanford and Northwestern universities also participated.

The National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association funded the studies.

Visit http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/heartlungvascular to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical services in heart disease.

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Media Contact: LaKisha Ladson
214-648-3404
lakisha.ladson@utsouthwestern.edu

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