Philosophers debate the existence of free will. Do human beings control their destinies, or are we the playthings of chance? A new study suggests that when it comes to heart disease, choice is no illusion. We really do control our chances of having heart disease and stroke.
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The largest-ever analysis of lifetime risks for cardiovascular disease was recently concluded after decades of research supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The study found that most known risk factors for cardiovascular disease can be controlled with lifestyle efforts and medications. These include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, excess body weight and physical inactivity. It concluded that middle-aged people with one or more of these risk factors are substantially more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people with optimal risk profiles.
The study, “Lifetime risks of cardiovascular disease”, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It covered 50 years of data from 257,000 people across sexes, races and ages. It determined that when it came to cardiovascular risk, we are all in the same boat: the more risk factors we have, the more likely we are to have a heart attack or stroke. At all ages studied, the people with the lowest level of risk factors lived longer and had the lowest risk for cardiovascular disease.
The good thing is that these risk factors are all under our control. Blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, overweight and sedentary lifestyle can be modified. Beyond that, the study indicates that if at any point in your life you choose to modify these risk factors, you lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
“This study reaffirms that it is never too early (or too late) to adopt a global preventive effort to reduce heart attack and stoke risk,” says Dr. Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, head of Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic.
Two significant risk factors you can’t control are your genetic profile and family history of heart disease. But you can lessen their effect by modifying the risk factors you can control.
So there’s good reason to quit smoking, eat a better diet and monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure. And when you are working out, taking a walk or climbing the stairs and a philosopher asks you what you’re doing, tell him or her that you’re exercising your free will.