food deserts
Heart Disease

Food Deserts Linked to Early Heart Disease

People who live in food deserts, defined as neighborhoods that lack stores selling fresh food, may have a higher risk of developing early heart disease, according to recent research.

“The thought is that greater access to healthier foods may have promoted healthier diets and, in turn, less coronary plaque formation,” said Jeffrey Wing, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Past studies found that limited fresh food choices and/or numerous fast food restaurants in poorer neighborhoods were linked to unhealthy diets and a greater likelihood that residents developed early atherosclerosis, a disease that hardens arteries and underlies many types of heart disease. No studies have examined which factors might be the cause.

In the new study, researchers explored how the limited availability of recreational facilities, healthy food stores, neighborhood walkability and social environments may contribute to the early stages of atherosclerosis in 5,950 adults during a 12-year follow-up.

All participants underwent a CT scan at the start of the study to measure coronary artery calcium to detect the amount of atherosclerosis in their arteries. In three different readings, 86 percent had coronary artery calcium.

After researchers excluded other features in the communities, including recreational centers, they found that decreased access to heart-healthy food stores is the common thread in more rapid progression of coronary atherosclerosis in middle-aged and older people.

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“We found that healthy food stores within one mile of their home was the only significant factor that reduced or slowed the progression of calcium buildup in coronary arteries,” said co-lead author Ella August, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Our results point to a need for greater awareness of the potential health threat posed by the scarcity of healthy grocery options in certain neighborhoods.”

Researchers said future studies should examine the impact of interventions, such as promoting the location of healthy food stores and how neighborhood characteristics may interact with individual risk factors and genetic predispositions.

The American Heart Association recommends a heart-healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish. It encourages eating foods low in sodium and saturated and trans fats, and limiting added sugars and red meat.

From American Heart Association News

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