Children of long-lived parents have a lower-than-average risk of heart disease in middle age, according to the latest results from a decades-long study tracking the heart health of residents of Framingham, Mass. Researchers found that if one or both of a person's parents survived to the ripe old age of 85, then that lucky individual could expect lower blood pressure and cholesterol—two major risk factors for heart disease, the nation's number one killer.

Prior studies have found that centenarians tend to have long-lived children with less heart disease and diabetes. But the Framingham study sheds light on those findings, because researchers are certain of the parents' ages at the time of their deaths and directly measured the vital signs of their offspring every four to eight years, says study director Daniel Levy, a cardiologist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Levy and his colleagues focused on 1,697 participants whose parents were also part of the Framingham Heart Study when it began in 1948. These participants' parents were all born long enough ago to have reached age 85. The researchers divided the offspring into three categories based on whether they had one, two or zero parents who survived to age 85.

Those whose parents made it to 85 scored higher on a variety of factors, including a combined measure of heart health called the Framingham risk score, which takes into account age, cholesterol, blood pressure, hypertension and cigarette smoking.

For example, only 13 percent of subjects with two surviving parents suffered from hypertension, or chronically high blood pressure, compared with 17 percent of those with one long-lived parent and nearly 22 percent of those with two shorter-lived parents. And the more long-lived the parents, the fewer of the offspring smoked, at least in men.

The finding, reported this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests that the long-lived parents had similarly low risk factors for heart disease, Levy says. "No doubt some of the familial clustering of longevity is a lifestyle phenomenon," he says, but "it's certainly pointing to some genetic component," too. He notes, for example, that roughly 50 percent of the variation in people's blood pressure values seems derive from genetics.

And what about people whose parents do not attain Methuselah status? No need to fret. "Even for those of us who chose our parents unwisely," Levy quips, "there's still a great deal we can do to modify our destiny." The study, he says, "points to those risk factors that just happen to be modifiable" through diet and drugs. "We know we can modify the risk factors, and we know those risk factors correlate with a long life."