PADAU, Italy — Exercising for 20 minutes a day in your 70s appears to be the best way older adults can live longer without heart problems, a new study reveals. Scientists in Italy say the moderate to vigorous physical activity reduced the risk of developing heart disease when these individuals reached their 80s.
Researchers have long known that physical activity lengthens lifespans and reduces the risk from cardiovascular disease, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Until now, however, few studies have probed whether exercise later in life can ward off heart attacks and strokes during old age.
For the study, the team drew on information from the Progetto Veneto Anziani study of 3,099 Italians over the age of 65. Those researchers carried out initial tests including a detailed medical history, physical examination, scans, and a range of blood tests between 1995 and 1997. Scientists conducted two further assessments four and seven years later.
Older women live with more pre-existing conditions
When the study began, women were more likely than men to have more than four co-existing conditions. Osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and chronic kidney disease were more common among women than men, while diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were more common among men.
Participants filled out questionnaires about how much exercise they did. Moderate exercise included walking, aerobic exercise, and fishing, while vigorous activity included working out at the gym, cycling, dancing, swimming, and gardening.
Study authors considered people who completed 20 minutes of exercise or more to be “active.” Results show men were more likely to be physically active than women.
Researchers then split participants into four groups: those who remained inactive, those who started slow but began exercising more over time, those who started off active but slowed down later, and those who remained very active throughout the experiment.
The team also factored in important background information such as household income, education, smoking and drinking habits, and the number of people in each participant’s household. Every participant had their health tracked through hospital discharge records and death certificates up to the end of 2018. At that time, 2,754 people had complete data about their health, including 1,398 (60%) women. During the monitoring period, doctors made 1,037 new diagnoses of heart disease, heart failure, and stroke among this group.
Results show an active lifestyle and physical activity over time had a link to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death in both men and women. The team found the biggest reduction in risk among new cases of coronary heart disease and heart failure during late old age. However, the team did not find any significant link between exercise and the risk of suffering a stroke.
Exercise for older men produced the greatest benefits
Men who participated in regular exercise had a 52-percent lower risk of developing heart disease than those who tended to skip their daily workout. Researchers say exercising at 70 appears to have the greatest benefits later in life. The sharpest reduction in heart disease and heart failure came among older adults who exercised for 20 to 40 minutes a day.
This link was strongest among men, but active women also had a lower risk of dying from a heart condition as well. Study authors note their findings are observational and cannot completely prove a direct link between exercise and a healthy heart during old age.
“These results suggest that public health policies should be targeted at promoting or beginning physical activity in mid- and early late life, given a probable greater effectiveness in reducing cardiovascular risks,” the researchers say in a media release.
“At least 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day should be recommended to achieve the greatest cardiovascular benefits.”
“Women doing more physical activity had consistently lower incidence rates of almost all cardiovascular outcomes despite the fact that the risk reduction did not reach statistical significance, but when considering overall mortality, risks were significantly reduced,” the Italian team concludes.
“Movement is medicine’ also in late life. Even a small amount of [physical activity] may confer beneficial effects in older people, but if undertaken early rather than late.”
The findings appear in the journal Heart.
South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.