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Reinvented lifestyle helps prevent heart attack, stroke

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Many people can reinvent their lifestyles and lower their risk of a heart attack or stroke in one giant step rather than the inch-by-inch approach doctors often recommend, according to the results of a major study appearing in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study examined simple lifestyle changes with potent effects in combating high blood pressure. About 50 million Americans have high blood pressure, including half of people over age 60, which is a major risk factor for heart attacks, the nation's No. 1 killer, and the main factor in strokes.

"This is the first time a host of behavioral steps to prevent or control high blood pressure has been put together in one intervention," said Dr. Claude Lenfant, head of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which funded the research.

"Past studies looked at one or two changes at a time, and it was thought that doing more would prove too hard," Lenfant said. "But this study shows that an all-in-one approach works and can help Americans reduce their blood pressure, lowering their risk for heart disease and stroke."

The study began in 1998 and involved 810 volunteers with high blood pressure at four medical centers around the country. Volunteers were asked to adopt a collection of lifestyle changes known to prevent or control high blood pressure, including:

No smoking.

Lose weight.

Cut down on salt.

Exercise regularly.

Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day.

Follow the DASH diet -- DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- which is rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.

Participants were divided into three groups. One followed all the recommendations; one followed all recommendations except the DASH diet, and the third received counseling alone on lifestyle changes.

Blood pressure fell in all three groups, with the biggest reductions in the group making the most radical changes.

The percentage of participants with optimal blood pressure (systolic below 120 and diastolic below 80) increased from 0 to 35. Only a few participants still needed blood pressure medication.

Participants also lost an average of 13 pounds, became more physically fit, reduced salt intake, ate more fruits, vegetables, and calcium and less fat.

Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072.

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