Two recent studies show it’s true whether you're a man or a woman, and even if you already have risk factors like high cholesterol.
The healthy habits for guys and ladies aren’t quite the same (although they’re similar), and researchers didn't directly compare what works for men vs. women.
What Works for Women?
One of the new studies followed nearly 70,000 women for 20 years. The women reported on their habits, such as diet and exercise, and gave the researchers other health information every 2 years. At the start of the study, the women were an average age of 37 and none had diabetes or diseases of the heart or blood vessels.
Not only did the women who followed all six healthy habits nearly get rid of their heart attack risk -- cutting it by 92% -- they also lowered their odds of getting a risk factor, like high blood pressure, by 66%.
Here are the six habits that mattered:
Have a normal body mass index (BMI).
Get moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 2.5 hours a week.
Watch 7 or fewer hours of television weekly.
Drink one or fewer alcoholic beverages daily.
Eat a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, or omega-3 fatty acids -- as well as limit sugary drinks, processed and red meats, trans fats, and sodium.
Meeting all of these habits can be a lofty goal. Less than 5% of the women followed them all, according to the study.
But it's not a case of all or nothing, says study leader Andrea Chomistek, ScD. She's a researcher from the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health. "Even women who reported only one or two healthy behaviors had a lower risk of heart disease than those who did zero," she says.
Having a normal BMI had the most impact on lowering the risk, she says.
Even for women who developed risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, following at least four of the habits was linked with a lower risk of getting heart disease, compared to women who followed none.
The study reinforces research showing that what works for older women also works for younger women -- those who are premenopausal and who may not consider themselves old enough for a heart attack, she says. These habits are important because the overall death rate from heart disease in the U.S. has increased among younger women ages 35 to 44.
What Works for Men?
In another recent study that looked at men and heart disease, Swedish researchers followed more than 20,000 men from 1997 through 2009. At the study start, the men were ages 45 to 79 with no histories of heart or blood vessel diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. They gave the researchers info on their health habits during the study, too.
The researchers found that following these five habits cut men’s heart attack risk by 86%:
Eat a healthy diet.
Drink alcohol moderately: about two or fewer drinks daily.
Be physically active -- walk or cycle at least 40 minutes daily.
Have a waist circumference of less than 37 inches.
The researchers, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, found that only 1% of the men followed all five healthy habits.
A healthy diet and moderate drinking had the most impact on reducing men’s risk, they found.
A Heart Doctor's Opinion
The researchers gathered some of their information from participants' self-reports, which might not always be accurate. Most participants in both studies were white, so results might not apply to people from other ethnic backgrounds.
Even so, the research gives valuable perspective about how bad health habits, even in young adults, can have ill effects, says Ravi Dave, MD. He's a cardiologist at the UCLA Medical Centers in L.A. and Santa Monica. He reviewed the findings but didn't participate in the studies.
"You really can see your bad habits, at a certain point in time, negatively influence you in the future," he says.
In the past, he says, women were often told, even by their doctors, that they were protected from heart disease until they reached menopause. The recent study on women "changes the mindset of doctors now not to give that bad advice anymore," he says. Women, like men, need to pay attention to good habits early in life, he says.
How to Get Started
First, figure out why you aren't taking on more healthy habits, Dave says. He finds that stress prevents many people from doing so, as well as "leads to a lot of these [unhealthy] behaviors," he says.
One good way to bust stress, he says, is to exercise. For some people, exercise can be ''me time." For others, it can be time with family or friends.
Both studies suggest a valuable payoff, he says. Even if you practice just some of the healthy habits, you are likely to stay free of heart disease.
Make those habits part of your normal routine, Dave says, similar to brushing your teeth in the morning.