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Keeping fit fights off genetic risk for heart disease, Stanford study finds

In one of the largest observational studies on fitness and heart disease, researchers examined found that people with higher levels of grip strength, physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness had reduced risks of heart attacks and stroke.

If your health history happens to be filled with family members who died of heart disease, don’t just throw your hands in the air and assume it’s inevitable that you’ll succumb to the same fate. New research shows that keeping fit can help ward off cardiovascular disease no matter what your genetic risk may be.

In a press release I wrote on the study, senior author Erik Ingelsson, MD, PhD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford, was quick to encourage everyone to keep fit in order to help keep coronary artery disease at bay.

"People should not just give up on exercise because they have a high genetic risk for heart disease," says Ingelsson, who has conducted research on topics such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease for the past decade. "And vice a versa: Even if you have a low genetic risk, you should still get exercise. It all ties back to what we have known all along: It's a mix of genes and environment that influences health."

The concept for the study, one of the largest observational studies on the topic to date, began with lead author Emmi Tikkanen, PhD, a former postdoctoral scholar in Ingelsson’s lab who's now a senior data scientist in Finland. Her past research in the genetic prediction of heart disease showed that new genomic screening tools could help identify people at high risk of heart disease. Those tools aren't yet ready for prime time in a clinical setting, but are useful in population studies like this one, she says.

For the study, the researchers examined data from nearly half a million people in the UK Biobank database. They found that participants with higher levels of grip strength, physical activity and cardio-respiratory fitness had lower levels of several negative cardiovascular outcomes, including coronary artery disease, stroke and atrial fibrillation, despite their genetic risks. The researchers also determined the various levels of genetic risk of participants using the results of their genetic mapping.

As outlined in our release:

Among those considered at high genetic risk for heart disease, high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with a 49 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease and a 60 percent lower risk for atrial fibrillation compared with study participants with low cardiorespiratory fitness.

For participants deemed at intermediate genetic risk for cardiovascular diseases, those with the strongest grips were 36 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease and had a 46 percent reduction in their risk for atrial fibrillation compared with study participants who had the same genetic risk and the weakest grips.

While physicians are still limited in their ability to determine an individual’s genetic risk for heart disease beyond asking about family history, this study provides evidence that keeping fit will make a difference no matter what that history is:

'This is important because of how we advise our patients,' Ingelsson said. 'It’s basically indicating that you can make some lifestyle changes [and] be more physically active and it can make a difference to your long-term health.'

The study appears online in the journal Circulation.

Photo by Skeeze

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