A large study offers the strongest evidence yet that a diet the government recommends for lowering blood pressure can save people from heart attack and stroke.
Researchers followed more than 88,000 healthy women for almost 25 years. They examined their food choices and looked at how many had heart attacks and strokes. Those who fared best had eating habits similar to those recommended by the government to stop high blood pressure.
The plan, called the DASH diet, favors fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and plant-based protein over meat.
Women with those eating habits were 24 percent less likely to have a heart attack and 18 percent less likely to have a stroke than women with more typical American diets.
Those are meaningful reductions since these diseases are so common. About two in five U.S. women at age 50 will eventually develop cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks and strokes. Women in the study were in their mid-30s to late 50s when the research began in 1980.
Previous research has shown this kind of diet can help prevent high blood pressure and cholesterol, which both can lead to heart attacks.
The new study appears in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine.
People might think, "I don't have high blood pressure, so I don't have to follow it," said Simmons College researcher Teresa Fung, the study's lead author. However, the results suggest, she said, that "even healthy people should get on it."
About 15,000 women in the study had diets that closely resembled the low blood pressure diet. They ate about twice as many fruits, vegetables and grains as the estimated 18,000 women whose diets more closely resembled typical American eating habits.
Although the study only followed women, Fung said men would probably get similar benefits from the approach.
The study was limited because it merely tracked the women and their habits for 24 years. That's a less rigorous method than randomly assigning equal groups of women different diets and comparing results. But that would be extremely difficult to do for such a long time.
Given that limitation, Dr. Laura Svetkey, director of Duke University's hypertension center, said the study provides the best evidence yet of important long-term benefits from a low blood pressure diet.
"It's nice to see research that really is aimed at helping people with prevention in a very practical way," Svetkey said. She noted that the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is available free on the National Institutes of Health Web site. The study was funded with NIH grants.
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program, said many patients would rather take a pill than adjust their eating habits. But, Goldberg said, "I always point out to my patients, if you make these changes in your lives, it could ... keep you off medication" in the long run.
"There has to be a greater emphasis on the way we live our lives," she said.
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