Target Health Blog

Light Physical Activity Linked to Lower Risk of Heart Disease in Older Women

March 25, 2019


Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, and older women suffer profoundly: nearly 68% of those between 60 and 79 have it, as do older Americans overall. Of the estimated 85.6 million adults with at least one type of cardiovascular disease, more than half are age 60 or older.

According to an article published in the journal JAMA Network Open (15 March 2019), light physical activity such as gardening, strolling through a park, and folding clothes might be enough to significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among women 63 and older. According to the authors, this kind of activity appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease events such as stroke or heart failure by up to 22%, and the risk of heart attack or coronary death, by as much as 42%.

In this five-year prospective study, the authors followed 5,861 women ages 63 to 97 to find out if higher amounts of light physical activity were associated with reduced risks of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. The study involved a racially and ethnically diverse group of women who were enrolled between 2012 and 2014. None had a history of myocardial infarction or stroke. The women were part of the NHLBI-funded Objective Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health (OPACH), a sub-cohort of the Women's Health Initiative.

Participants wore hip-mounted accelerometers, a device like a fitness tracker, that measured their movement 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days. The accelerometers were also calibrated by age to distinguish between light, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity -- a monitoring detail considered a major strength of the study. The authors then followed the participants for almost five years, tracking cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks and strokes. Previous studies have largely relied on self-reporting questionnaires, but most people, according to the authors, do not think of folding clothes or walking to the mailbox as physical activity of any kind. The authors added that researchers need to conduct large randomized trials to determine if particular interventions might increase light physical activity in older women, and what effect that would have on cardiovascular disease rates. But the OPACH authors said they encourage this group to increase their light physical activity immediately.

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