If you want to live a long, healthy life, the path may begin during middle age. That is what one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests. The study found that people who have strong heart health during middle age tend to live longer, healthier lives than other people - by as many as 14 years.

Researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Northwestern Medical Center undertook the study. They examined data from the Cardiovascular Lifetime Risk Pooling Project. Their data revealed as many as 905,115 people who were between the ages of 45 and 95 at the start of the study.

The researchers were specifically parsing the data for cardiovascular disease. "We found that many people develop cardiovascular disease as they live into old age, but those with optimal risk factor levels live disease-free longer," explained the study's first author, John T. Wilkins. "We need to do everything we can to maintain optimal risk factors so that we reduce the chances of developing cardiovascular disease and increase the chances that we'll live longer and healthier."

None of the study participants had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study. Researchers collected information on each participant's blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as whether they smoked or had diabetes. Researchers also recorded when and if participants had a stroke, heart attack, developed heart disease, or any death from any other cardiovascular event.

While men and women alike both suffered from high rates of cardiovascular disease, at 60 percent for men and 56 percent for women, some groups developed the condition later in life. They found that those who were in the best shape during middle age were more likely to live 14 years longer than people who had two or more risk factors, before suffering from cardiovascular disease.

The National Heart and Lung Institute says that risk factors for cardiovascular disease include: age of 55 or over, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, a family history of heart disease, being overweight, and being physically inactive.