Exercise helps fight genetic risk of heart disease

A new study has found that keeping fit is good for your heart even if there is heart disease in your family.

By June Shannon

Wednesday, 11th April, 2018

Keeping fit, even if you’re born with a high genetic risk (chance of inheriting a condition) for heart disease, still works to keep your heart healthy, new research has found.

For the study, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the US examined data from almost half a million people and found that those with higher levels of grip strength, physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness had reduced risks of heart attacks and stroke, even if they had a genetic predisposition for heart disease.

“People should not just give up on exercise because they have a high genetic risk for heart disease,” said Professor Erik Ingelsson, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford. “And vice 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 influence health.”

People should not just give up on exercise because they have a high genetic risk for heart disease

Professor Erik Ingelsson, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford

How they did it

To determine the fitness and activity levels of those involved in the study, researchers used data previously collected from 482,702 people who underwent grip-strength that correlate with overall body strength; answered questions about their levels of physical activity; wore accelerometers on their wrists for seven days; and took stationary-cycling tests. Genetic data from 468,095 of the participants was also used in the study.

What they found

Researchers found across the board that higher levels of fitness and physical activity were associated with lower levels of a number of negative cardiovascular outcomes, including coronary artery disease, stroke and atrial fibrillation.

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

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

Given little has been known about the risk-modifying effects of exercise in individuals with increased genetic risk of cardiovascular disease, these results could have important ramifications for public health the study said.

As well as the direct cardiovascular benefits, exercise helps with weight loss and/or keeping at a healthy weight and helps us combat stress, all of which are good for our heart health

Dr Angie Brown, Medical Director, Irish Heart Foundation

Why is this important?

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

Dr Angie Brown, Medical Director of the Irish Heart Foundation, said the study was further evidence that moderate levels of exercise are good for you.

“As well as the direct cardiovascular benefits, exercise helps with weight loss and/or keeping at a healthy weight and helps us combat stress, all of which are good for our heart health,” Dr Brown stated.

A paper describing the research was published online April 9 in the journal Circulation.

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