MONDAY, July 6, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- In more good news for those who don't let aging keep them from practicing healthy habits, a new study finds the fittest seniors are half as likely as others to suffer from heart failure.
"Older adults can make simple changes to reduce their heart failure risk, such as not smoking, engaging in moderate physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight," said study author Liana Del Gobbo, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Heart failure is very common among older people, the researchers said.
"A person aged 55 has a one-in-three chance of developing heart failure in his lifetime," Del Gobbo said, and the condition is the leading cause of hospitalization in people covered by Medicare, the U.S. health insurance program for seniors.
"Heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump sufficiently to maintain blood flow to meet the body's needs," Del Gobbo explained. Heart failure can cause fluids to build up in the feet and legs, leading to painful swelling. Patients with the condition can become tired easily, and other health problems can develop.
In the worst cases, heart failure can require a heart transplant and lead to death.
The study authors launched their research to gain a better understanding of the risk factors for heart failure, Del Gobbo said. To do so, they followed more than 4,400 people aged 65 and older for up to 22 years. The participants -- 61 percent women, 89 percent white and 11 percent black -- were enrolled in the study in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Over the time the study participants were followed, there were 1,380 cases of heart failure. After the researchers adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by other factors, they found no link between diet and heart failure rates.
But those who walked faster (over 3 miles per hour versus under 2 miles per hour) were 26 percent less likely to suffer from heart failure. And those who met four or more criteria for good health were 45 percent less likely to suffer from heart failure.
The criteria included several measures of physical fitness plus alcohol intake -- ideal is "more than one drink/week, but not more than one or two drinks a day," according to Del Gobbo.
Why doesn't diet seem to matter? "Diet is a very important factor in the development of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases," she said. "Heart failure has some different underlying causes for its development than these conditions. We did find increased risk of heart failure in people with higher sodium [salt] intake, which makes sense because a high-sodium diet increases a person's risk for high blood pressure, a key risk factor for developing heart failure."
What should people learn from the findings?
"Physical activity among older adults does not have to be strenuous to achieve health benefits," Del Gobbo said. "We saw benefits for adults who walked at a moderate or brisk pace and burned calories through leisure activity, like house or yard work, walking, engaging in outdoor activities, or other forms of physical activity, equivalent to about 30 minutes per day."
It's not clear how active the study participants were before the age of 65, so there's no way to know how healthy habits earlier in life affected them. Researchers also don't know whether healthier habits -- earlier in life, later in life or both -- directly reduced heart failure rates because the study was not designed to find a cause-and-effect link.
Dr. David Maron, director of preventive cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., co-wrote a commentary accompanying the study.
Maron said he believes the study provides "strong and plausible" indications that healthy habits reduce the risk of heart failure, although he acknowledges that it doesn't prove they do.
"A healthy lifestyle may not only help you reach an old age," he said, "it may help you avoid heart failure when you get there."
The study appears in the July 6 issue of the journal JACC: Heart Failure, published by the American College of Cardiology.
For more about heart failure, try the American Heart Association.