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More Exercise Boosts Senior Heart Health

Update Date: May 05, 2014 07:07 PM EDT

Being more active after the age of 65 may enhance heart health, according to a new study.

New research reveals that maintaining or boosting physical activity in old age can actually cut the risk of heart attack by improving the heart's electrical well-being.

The latest study analyzed heart monitor recordings taken over five years. The findings revealed that participants who walked more and faster and spent more time on physically active leisure activities had fewer irregular heart rhythms and greater heart rate variability than their less active counterparts.

The study involved recordings of 985 adults participating in the community-based Cardiovascular Health Study. Participants had an average age of 71 at the start of the study.

Researchers note that heart rate variability is the change in time between one heartbeat to the next.

"These small differences are influenced by the health of the heart and the nervous system that regulates the heart," lead author Luisa Soares-Miranda, Ph.D., a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the Faculty of Sport at the University of Porto in Portugal, said in a news release. "Early abnormalities in this system are picked up by changes in heart rate variability, and these changes predict the risk of future heart attacks and death."

The study shoed that better heart variability increased with more physical activity, and those who increased their walking distance or pace during the study period had better heart rate variability than those who shortened their walking distance and slowed down their walking pace.

"Any physical activity is better than none, but maintaining or increasing your activity has added heart benefits as you age," Soares-Miranda said. "Our results also suggest that these certain beneficial changes that occur may be reduced when physical activity is reduced."

The findings revealed that there was about an 11 percent difference in heart attack risk between participants in the highest physical activity group and those in the lowest physical activity group.

"So if you feel comfortable with your usual physical activity, do not slow down as you get older - try to walk an extra block or walk at a faster pace," Soares-Miranda said. "If you're not physically active, it is never too late to start."

The findings are published in the journal Circulation.

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