Only 1 in 50 Americans meet heart-health goals; do you?

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By Deborah Kotz, Globe Staff

Americans aren’t known for their hard-hitting exercise habits or devotion to good nutrition — which is probably why there’s no best-selling “eat like the Americans” diet book — but I was still surprised to hear that fewer than 2 percent of us meet all the criteria for good heart health. The seven factors include: not smoking, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, following a healthful diet, and having normal blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Doesn’t sound so hard to me, which is why I’m wondering why the rates are so low. How can it be that only 1 out of 100 of us actually meet these heart-health goals? Are all the rest of us destined to keel over from a heart attack?

To get these answers, I delved into the study, which examined health and diet surveys of nearly 45,000 Americans over two decades.

The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Emory University calculated that those who met at least six of the heart-health criteria had less than half the risk of dying over the course of the 20-year study and had a 75 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease compared with their peers who met one or fewer of the criteria.

While smoking rates improved from 1988 when the study began to 2010 when it ended, many of the other metrics have gotten worse. More of us have high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, though more of us are getting treated with medications to bring these levels down; more of us are sedentary — and of course, we’ve gotten a lot fatter as a nation.

Still, I’d like to know if I’m one of the lucky ones who fall into the 2 percent, which I’d argue is even a loftier goal than making it into the 1 percent highest income bracket, since the former could mean a longer lifespan.

I’m already at a pretty low risk for heart disease due to my age, 41, combined with my gender and lack of early heart disease in my family. I don’t have high cholesterol — most likely because I haven’t gone through menopause yet — and my blood pressure and blood sugar levels are fine; I’ve never smoked and am not overweight.

Still, I’m wondering if my diet and exercise habits meet the gold-standard criteria.

For physical activity, the study researchers checked off the box for exercise only in participants who engaged in moderate activity (brisk walking, slow jogging, slow swimming or biking) five or more days per week or who engaged in intense activity (running, singles tennis, fast swimming or biking, rowing) three of more times per week.

As an avid runner, I usually meet that requirement, though on busy weeks, I might get in only one or two intense exercise bouts, and certainly not enough moderate activity.

Where I might fall perpetually short, though, is with diet. The researchers calculate that fewer than one in four participants meet the heart-healthy diet goals for sodium, sugar, fish intake, whole-grains, and fruits and vegetables. I’m sure I eat too much sodium and foods with too much added sugar since the American Heart Association sets pretty strict limits on both of these, which most Americans fail to meet. And I don’t always get the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

So, I’m guessing I’m in the 8.8 percent of study participants who had at least 6 of the 7 criteria. Not bad, but not the top 1 percent either.

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