Heart-healthy habits keep you biologically young, study shows

The benefit of better heart health may be associated with the positive impact of heart-healthy lifestyle factors on biological aging (the age of the body and its cells), according to new research published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association.

Study: Epigenetic Age Mediates the Association of LifeStudy: Epigenetic Age Mediates the Association of Life's Essential 8 With Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality. Image Credit: santoelia / Shutterstock

“Our study findings tell us that no matter what your actual age is, better heart-healthy behaviors and managing heart disease risk factors were associated with a younger biological age and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, death from heart disease and stroke and death from any cause,” said Jiantao Ma, Ph.D., senior study author and an assistant professor in the division of nutrition epidemiology and data science at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

This study analyzed whether a chemical modification process known as DNA methylation, which regulates gene expression, may be one mechanism by which cardiovascular disease health factors affect cell aging and the risk of death. DNA methylation levels are the most promising biomarker for estimating biological age. To some degree, your genetic makeup determines biological age, and lifestyle factors and stress can also influence it.

Researchers examined health data for 5,682 adults (mean age of 56 years; 56% of participants were women) who were enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing, large, multigenerational research project aimed at identifying risk factors for heart disease. Using interviews, physical exams, and laboratory tests, all participants were assessed using the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 tool. The tool scores cardiovascular health between 0-100 (with 100 being the best) using a composite of four behavioral measures (dietary intake, physical activity, hours slept per night, and smoking status) and four clinical measurements (body mass index, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure). Each participant was assessed using four tools that estimate biological age based on DNA methylation and a fifth tool that evaluates a person’s genetic tendency towards accelerated biological aging. Participants were followed for 11-14 years for new-onset cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular death, or death from any cause.

The analysis found:

  • For each 13-point increase in an individual’s Life’s Essential 8 score, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease for the first time was reduced by about 35%, death from cardiovascular disease was reduced by 36%, and death from any cause was reduced by 29%.
  • In participants with a genetic risk profile making them more likely to have an accelerated biological age, the Life’s Essential 8 score had a more significant impact on outcomes potentially via DNA methylation, i.e., DNA methylation accounted for 39%, 39%, and 78% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular death, and all-cause death, respectively.
  • Overall, about 20% of the association between Life’s Essential 8 scores and cardiovascular outcomes was estimated to be due to the impact of cardiovascular health factors on DNA methylation; in contrast, for participants at higher genetic risk, the association was almost 40%.

“While there are a few DNA methylation-based, biological age calculators commercially available, we don’t have a good recommendation regarding whether people need to know their epigenetic age,” Ma said. “Our message is that everyone should be mindful of the eight heart disease and stroke health factors: eat healthy foods; be more active; quit tobacco; get healthy sleep; manage weight; and maintain healthy cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.”

Randi Foraker, Ph.D., M.A., FAHA, co-author of Life’s Essential 8: Updating and Enhancing the American Heart Association’s Construct of Cardiovascular Health, said the findings are consistent with prior research.

“We know that modifiable risk factors and DNA methylation are independently associated with cardiovascular disease. What this study adds is that DNA methylation may serve as a mediator between risk factors and cardiovascular disease,” said Foraker, who is a professor of medicine at the Institute for Informatics, Data Science and Biostatistics and director of the Center for Population Health Informatics, both at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. “The study highlights how cardiovascular health can impact biological aging and has important implications for healthy aging and prevention of cardiovascular disease and potentially other health conditions.”

Study details, background, and design:

  • The study analyzed health data for a subgroup of participants who attended the Framingham Heart Study exams in the offspring group from 2005 to 2008 and the third-generation group from 2008 to 2011.   
  • Participants were followed for an average of 14 years for the children of the original participants and 11 years for the grandchildren.
  • Health outcomes for the analysis included the development of cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, or heart failure), death from any cardiovascular disease, or death from any cause.
  • Results were adjusted for sex, age, and alcohol use. Results for all-cause death were adjusted for the presence of cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) or heart disease at study enrollment. Participants already diagnosed with heart disease at study enrollment were excluded from the analysis of new-onset cardiovascular disease.
  • The four tools to measure DNA methylation-based epigenetic age scores were based on established algorithms for DunedinPACE Score, PhenoAge, DNAmTL, and GrimAge. A fifth tool, GrimAge PGS, assessed genetic tendency toward accelerated biological aging.

Because the study analyzes previously collected health data, it cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship between cardiovascular health risk factors and DNA methylation. In addition, DNA methylation measures were from a single time point, which limits the validity of the mediation effect. The study’s findings are also limited because the participants were predominantly of European ancestry, so the interactions of Life’s Essential 8 and genetic aging found in this study may not be generalizable to people of other races or ethnicities.

“Currently, we are expanding our research to include people of other racial and ethnic groups to further investigate the relationship of cardiovascular risk factors and DNA methylation,” Ma said.

According to the American Heart Association’s 2024 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics, heart disease and stroke claimed more lives in the U.S. in 2021 than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined. Also, it accounted for approximately 19.91 million global deaths.

Co-authors, disclosures, and funding sources are listed in the manuscript.

Studies published in the American Heart Association’s scientific journals are peer-reviewed. The statements and conclusions in each manuscript are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the Association’s policy or position. The Association makes no representation or guarantee as to their accuracy or reliability. The Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers, and other companies) also make donations and fund specific Association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, device manufacturers, health insurance providers, and the Association’s overall financial information are available here.

Journal reference:
  • Epigenetic Age Mediates the Association of Life's Essential 8 With Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality Madeleine Carbonneau BA , Yi Li MA, Brenton Prescott MS , Chunyu Liu PhD, Tianxiao Huan PhD, Roby Joehanes PhD, Joanne M. Murabito MD, Nancy L. Heard‐Costa PhD, Vanessa Xanthakis PhD, Daniel Levy MD, DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.123.032743, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.123.032743


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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