ATLANTA, November 9, 1999 — Increased physical activity and a low-fat, reduced-calorie dietary pattern can help women avoid increases in heart disease-associated risk factors that often accompany menopause, according to a University of Pittsburgh study, the first to clinically demonstrate this relationship. Researchers from the University’s Graduate School of Public Health are presenting these findings Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the 72nd Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association in Atlanta.
The findings grew out of the Women’s Healthy Lifestyle Project, a five-year, randomized clinical trial testing the efficacy of a behavioral lifestyle intervention program in preventing increases in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) and weight gain during the peri- to post-menopausal period.
"The message from this study is that women can take control of their health. They don’t have to accept the elevations in cardiovascular risk factors that typically accompany menopause," said Lewis H. Kuller, M.D., Dr. P.H., principal investigator of the study and university professor and chairman, department of epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh.
The study included 535 pre-menopausal women who were randomly assigned to a behavioral lifestyle intervention (LI) group, which included a low-fat, reduced-calorie diet and physical activity component, or to an assessment-only control group.
The LI group participants were asked to incorporate a meal plan designed to reduce fat (to 25 percent total fat, 7 percent saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol) and calories (to 1,300 calorie/day) and increase moderate-intensity physical activity (to burn 1,000-1,500 calories/week). Each LI participant was asked to lose a specific, moderate amount of weight (5-15 pounds), depending upon her baseline weight. The women participated in a five-year behavioral program including group meetings, nutrition counseling sessions and refresher programs, and had regular contact with researchers by mail and telephone.
After four and a half years, women in the LI group showed significantly lower levels of LDL cholesterol, glucose and triglycerides, as compared with the control group. These factors all are associated with increases in the risk of heart disease.
The LI group overall showed a mean LDL-cholesterol increase of 3.5 mg/dl, as compared with a 9 mg/dl increase in the control group. In women who became post-menopausal during the study, there was an average 3.8 mg/dl increase in LDL-c, versus a 12 mg/dl increase in the control group. Smaller increases were observed in LI participants’ levels of triglycerides and glucose. Levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (so-called "good" cholesterol), rose slightly in both the LI and control groups.
"We now can say with certainty that women are not physiologically destined for cardiovascular disease once they reach menopause," said Dr. Kuller. "Risk factors can be blunted significantly by feasible lifestyle modifications. This is very good news for women."