A new study from the University at Buffalo (UB) has shown that walking more could significantly reduce the risk of heart failure in older women. According to the researchers, this is the first study to report this association.

The findings of the research were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Heart Failure on Sept. 5.

This is said to be the first study showing an association between increased physical activity and a reduced risk of two subtypes of heart failure — with reduced ejection fraction and with preserved ejection fraction. While the former is linked to worse prognosis, the latter is more common in older adults, especially women and racial minorities. 

Heart failure with preserved ejection fraction is more likely to affect those who have not had a heart attack but have high blood pressure or diabetes.

"The heart muscle more or less wears out and becomes an inefficient pump, although not to the extreme seen with reduced ejection fraction," said Michael LaMonte, lead author and a research associate professor of epidemiology in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.

The research team examined data on more than 137,000 postmenopausal women who participated in the Women's Health Initiative, including self-reported physical activity. They narrowed it down to 35,272 women who had one of the two subtypes of heart failure.

Findings revealed a strong association, suggesting that increased walking and physical activity could help in reducing the risk of heart failure. While the intensity of physical activity (whether it was mild, moderate, or highly intense) did not show a strong link, researchers found the amount of physical activity performed did matter.

Compared to those who reported no physical activity at baseline, every additional 30 to 45 minutes of daily activity was linked to the following risk reductions — 9 percent for overall heart failure, 8 percent for heart failure with preserved ejection fraction and 10 percent for heart failure with reduced ejection fraction.

The researchers accounted for heart attack development preceding diagnosis of heart failure, which helped in preventing biased results. "We also showed that the protective relationship between physical activity and heart failure development held when we examined changes in physical activity levels over time," LaMonte added.

This protective effect carries a lot of relevance since walking is the most commonly reported physical activity among older adults. Keeping the future in mind, it is also worth noting how the over-60 population in the United States is expected to double by 2035, with women outnumbering men. 

Given the cost of treatment and the higher risk of heart failure past the age of 60, LaMonte explained, "the possibility of preventing its development by promoting increased physical activity levels, and specifically walking, in later life could have an important impact on the overall burden of this disease in an aging society."