22 January 2020.

Over the past 12 months, researchers from around the world have been using the 45 and Up Study to make new discoveries into healthy ageing and what we can all do to live longer, happier, healthier lives. Here’s what Australia’s largest ongoing study of healthy ageing has taught us this past year:

The risks of smoking are worse than we thought (but there’s good news)

Smoking is not just bad for your lungs: it causes untold damage to the heart and major blood vessels and triples the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, according to a major study published in July 2019.

Researchers followed around 190,000 participants from the 45 and Up Study – both smokers and non-smokers – for approximately seven years, looking at 36 different types of cardiovascular disease. They found that even ‘light’ smoking causes significant harm to the heart, and people who smoke an average of just five cigarettes a day have around double the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease compared with those who have never smoked. The study also identified a new smoking risk for an irregular heartbeat known as paroxysmal tachycardia.

But the good news is that quitting can reverse most of the damage. The study showed that people who quit smoking in their late thirties or early forties avoided around 90% of the risk of heart attack and stroke attributed to smoking. Read more

Trees improve our mental health

People are naturally attracted to leafy landscapes.

A study based on nearly 50,000 people in the Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle area has found that while grass is great, it’s the leafy tree canopy that has the most benefit for mental health.

After looking at the location and mental health patterns of participants, researchers found that adults who lived in neighbourhoods with 30% or more tree canopy had 31% lower odds of developing psychological distress. They also had 33% lower odds of developing fair to poor general health. As for grass? Results showed that adults had poorer mental and general health in areas with higher percentages of bare grass nearby.

This could be due to a few reasons: trees offer shade from the sun, are a natural distraction from stressful thoughts, and provide attractive spaces for social and physical recreation. It’s hoped these findings can offer new insights for urban planners and landscape architects designing urban greening strategies. Read more

Australian women are missing out on critical heart disease treatment

An ANU study using 45 and Up data has found that men are more likely than women to receive coronary procedures, and unconscious gender bias may be among the reasons for the disparity.

Researchers linked baseline data from 9,000 NSW patients in the 45 and Up Study to hospitalisation and mortality data – half of which were admitted to hospital with  acute myocardial infarction (AMI), and the other half for angina. Once admitted, however, treatment differed significantly between the sexes: men were 1.5 times more likely than women to receive percutaneous coronary imaging (PCI) or coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) for AMI. Men were also 2.4 times more likely than women to receive PCI or CABG for angina. Moreover, men hospitalised for angina were 25% more likely to receive angiography (a form of X-ray imaging) than women.

Why? Researchers suggest it could be linked with sex differences in clinical presentation, or unwarranted variation due to discrimination – in other words, unconscious gender bias. Either way, the research shines an important light on gender differences in coronary care, and increasing awareness of optimal care. Read more

Breastfeeding linked to lower risk of heart disease

Breastfeeding could offer protective benefits for heart health

Research from the University of Sydney has shown that mothers who breastfeed their babies have a lower risk of developing or dying from heart disease than those who don’t breastfeed.

The study of over 100,000 NSW mothers participating in the 45 and Up Study found those who breastfed had a 14 percent lower risk of hospital admission for heart disease and 34 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

This is the first Australian study to explore the relationship between breastfeeding and heart disease. And while researchers are still to pinpoint why breastfeeding has protective benefits for heart health, they stated that “one of the likely theories is that the calories women expend breastfeeding, nearly 500 each day, are associated with positive changes in metabolism which help women that breastfeed to lower their risk of heart disease.” Read more

What’s next for the 45 and Up Study?

2020 is set to be another big year for the study, with a new round of surveys going out to participants to see how Australia is ageing. If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the study and its latest findings, join the 45 and Up facebook community, sign up for our newsletter or explore more of the research here.