The findings appear in the July 6, 2011 issue the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Sudden cardiac death is a result of Sudden Cardiac Arrest and claims nearly 300,000 lives each year. Cardiac arrest differs from a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when a blood vessel becomes blocked and interrupts blood flow to the heart, causing heart muscle to die. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions and the heart stops beating. Most of these deaths occur with little or no warning.
The researchers followed 81,722 registered female nurses from the Nurses’ Health Study, who were between the ages of 38 and 63 years old at the beginning of the study, from 1984 to 2010. Participants completed a mailed questionnaire inquiring about medical history and cardiovascular and lifestyle risk factors every 2 years. Information on dietary habits was assessed every 4 years.
They defined a healthy lifestyle as not smoking, daily exercise for 30 minutes per day or more, a healthy body weight and a Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasizes high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish and moderate intake of alcohol. The study, which documented 321 sudden cardiac death events, found that women with all four healthy lifestyle habits had about a 92 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death compared to women with none of the healthy habits. Additionally, the authors estimated that 81percent of sudden cardiac deaths may have been avoided had all women in the study population followed this healthy lifestyle. Among nonsmokers, 79 percent of sudden cardiac deaths may have been avoided through adherence to the other three lifestyle factors (healthy weight, healthy diet and daily exercise).
“Sudden cardiac death is an important public health challenge because the majority of SCD events occur in seemingly healthy people, and is the first indication of heart disease,” said Stephanie Chiuve, an instructor in medicine in the Division of Preventive Medicine at BWH.
She added, “Our findings show that following a healthy lifestyle, which is associated with an 80 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, 90 percent lower risk of diabetes, and a 50 percent lower risk for stroke in women, may play an important role in the prevention of sudden cardiac death as well.”
The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.
For more information about women’s cardiovascular health, visit our Women’s Heart Health section on the web.