Exercising moderately to vigorously for 20 minutes on a daily basis in early old age (70-75) may best stave off major heart disease in late old age (80+), according to research published in the journal Heart.

While the benefits of exercise are well-established, few studies have looked exclusively at whether exercise in later life could help to prevent heart disease. So, the researchers aimed to fill this gap in research.

To do so, they drew on data from a study of more than 3,000 Italians aged 65 and above. Participants were initially assessed between 1995 and 1997 and then followed up over a four-to-seven-year period.

Participants were assessed and then followed up four to seven years later

As well as providing a detailed medical history, participants were also asked to provide details about their physical activity levels at certain time points, for example what type of exercise they did and how long for on average each day.

Moderate physical activity included walking, bowls, and fishing, while vigorous physical activity included gardening, gym work-outs, cycling, dancing, and swimming.

Those who exercised for 20 minutes or more a day were considered ‘active’ while those who exercise for less than 20 minutes were considered ‘inactive’.

The health of all the participants was then tracked through linkage to hospital discharge records and death certification up to the end of December 2018
The final analysis included roughly 2,750 participants, the majority of whom (60%) were women. During the monitoring, 1,037 new diagnoses of heart disease, heart failure and stroke were made.

Improving physical activity earlier in old age might have the most impact

The findings revealed that those who maintained an active lifestyle or who’s activity levels increased over time had a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease in both men and women.

The greatest benefits appeared to occur at the age of 70, and risk was only marginally lower at the age of 75, and no lower at the age of 80-85. This suggests that improving physical activity earlier in old age might have the most impact, say the researchers.

The sharpest reduction in heart disease and heart failure was associated with a period of between 20 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and the researchers are therefore calling for the introduction of public health policies aimed at those in early old age.

They said: “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.

“At least 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day should be recommended to achieve the greatest cardiovascular benefits.”

Physical activity helps to better control blood pressure, blood glucose levels and lipid profiles

Drs Enrico Fabris and Gianfranco Sinagra of the University of Trieste, Italy, suggest that this risk reduction could be attributed to the ability of physical activity to improve arterial blood flow, reducing its stickiness and the formation of blood clots.

“However, the detailed mechanisms by which [physical activity] can reduce the future risk of [cardiovascular disease] remain not fully understood,” they point out.

“The favourable effect of [physical activity] may be simply explained by its capability of slowing down the atherosclerosis process through a better control of blood pressure, blood glucose level, and lipid profile.”

But the findings show: “that ‘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,” they conclude.