Older adults could lower the risks to their heart and brain 500 steps at a time

By American Heart Association News

Pollyana Ventura/E+ via Getty Images
(Pollyana Ventura/E+ via Getty Images)

It's never too late to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. And it won't take 10,000 steps a day, a new study suggests. It may be done with just 500 steps – about a quarter of a mile – at a time.

The research, presented Thursday at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health conference in Boston, found that for every 500 steps walked each day by adults ages 70 and older, the risk for heart disease, stroke and heart failure dropped by 14%. The findings are considered preliminary until full results are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"Steps are an easy way to measure physical activity, and more daily steps were associated with a lower risk of having a cardiovascular disease-related event in older adults," lead researcher Erin E. Dooley said in a news release. Dooley is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined. Staying physically active can help improve cardiovascular health, and daily step goals are an easily measurable way to do so. However, most studies of daily step counts involve younger adults who are able to set higher goals that might not be reasonable for older adults.

In the new study, researchers analyzed data from 2016 to 2017 for 452 older adults in the ongoing Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study. The adults wore an accelerometer – a device similar to a pedometer – at the hip to measure steps for three or more days, at least 10 hours each day. Participants had an average age of 78 and were followed for 3.5 years.

The analysis found adults who took about 4,500 steps per day were 77% less likely to experience a cardiovascular event – defined as coronary heart disease, stroke or heart failure – than those who took less than 2,000 steps per day. For every additional 500 daily steps, cardiovascular disease risk dropped by 14%.

However, the study did not determine whether taking the additional steps prevents or delays cardiovascular disease, or if taking less steps was an indicator of underlying disease.

"It's important to maintain physical activity as we age," Dooley said. "However, daily step goals should also be attainable. We were surprised to find that every additional quarter of a mile, or 500 steps, of walking had such a strong benefit to heart health. While we do not want to diminish the importance of higher intensity physical activity, encouraging small increases in the number of daily steps also has significant cardiovascular benefits."

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