Increasingly active patterns of physical activity were linked with reduced rates of overall mortality and cardiovascular disease (CVD), but early rather than later in late life, in a 20-year follow-up cohort study.
In this population of people older than 65 years, researchers found that physical activity overall was associated with lower rates of incident CVD, particularly among men, and the association was strongest in people 70 to 75 years of age, rather than in older age groups.
They also looked at “trajectories,” or changes in activity over time, and found a stable-high trajectory of activity was associated with a significantly lower risk for cardiovascular outcomes in men than in those with a stable-low trajectory. For women, more physical activity was consistently associated with lower CVD outcomes, although not statistically significantly so, except for overall mortality, which did reach significance.
Notably, the greatest reduction in cardiovascular risk was reported in people who did more than 20 minutes of physical exercise each day, and it was more pronounced in those 70 years of age.
Physical activity was also associated with a lower incidence of heart failure and coronary heart disease in older people, again especially early on in late life, reported Claudio Barbiellini Amidei, MD, University of Padua, Italy, and colleagues.
The data suggest that physical activity is more effective in preventing CVD onset when implemented early rather than later in life, noted Amidei in an email.
“The findings of our study are suggestive of a protective effect of physical activity in late-life on cardiovascular health. WHO recommendations for adults and older adults are to practice at least 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. I believe this is a realistic target, and policy makers should raise awareness on the importance of achieving this goal at all ages, including in late-life,” Amidei said.
The study was published online February 14 in Heart.
Previous research has demonstrated that the most benefit of high physical activity, compared with low, begins at about 60 years of age, and that is because younger people are at much lower risk, noted Carl “Chip” Lavie MD, FACC, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention, Ochsner Clinical School-The University of Queensland School of Medicine, New Orleans, who was not involved in the study.
“At quite old ages, for example over age 80, resistance exercise or weight training and balance training may be even more important than aerobic training,” he added.
The benefits of physical activity on cardiovascular risk are well established, the researchers note. Less clear is the role that trajectories of activity over time play, although research to date suggests a reduction in risk with increasing activity from mid-life to early old age, they write.
For the current analysis, the researchers assessed 3099 Italian participants. Mean age was about 75 years, and baseline data were collected from 1995 to 1997.
Follow-up visits were conducted after 4 years and again after 7 years. Using hospital medical records and mortality data, the researchers were able to collect surveillance data through 2018. Hospital records, surveys, and clinical assessments helped them identify incident and prevalent cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke, coronary heart disease, and heart failure.
Participants’ physical activity patterns were classified as stable-high, low-increasing, high-decreasing, and stable-low. Exposure was evaluated at 70, 75, 80, and 85 years of age.
“In our analyses, we focused on moderate to vigorous physical activity, and these include a broad range of exercises, such as walking very briskly, playing tennis, jogging, but comprise also other activities, such as gardening or doing household chores,” said Amidei.
Patterns of stable-low physical activity were linked to a significantly greater risk for cardiovascular outcomes in men than patterns of stable-high physical activity (hazard ratio, 0.48; 95% CI, 0.27 – 0.86; P for trend = .002).
No significant relation was found between physical activity and stroke, the researchers note.
“The benefits of physical activity seem to lessen above the age of 75 years and seem more important in men,” noted Lavie. “This may be partly due to the higher risk of CVD in men. Women typically lag 13 to 15 years behind men for CVD but start catching up in older years.”
Limitations of the study include lack of information regarding physical activity during mid-life, the limited number of stroke events, the relatively few participants older than 85 years, and potential recall bias, the researchers note.
Another limitation was that the physical activity data were based on patient surveys collected 3 years apart and did not involve the use of an accelerometer, the researchers add.
“Future observational studies are required to confirm our findings and pathophysiological studies are warranted to examine the underlying biological mechanisms. Physical activity is likely to be beneficial at any age, but to summarize our findings, we could say that when it comes to being physically active, the sooner the better,” concluded Amidei.
Amidei report no relevant financial relationships.
Heart. 2022;108:360-366. Full text
Ashley Lyles is an award-winning medical journalist. She is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Previously, she studied professional writing at Michigan State University, where she also took premedical classes. Her work has taken her to Honduras, Cambodia, France, and Ghana and has appeared in outlets like The New York Times Daily 360, PBS NewsHour, The Huffington Post, Undark, The Root, Psychology Today, Insider, and Tonic (Health by Vice), among other publications.
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