Conventional wisdom has long held that stiffening arteries and the resultant rising blood pressure are inevitable as people get older.

But a study published today in the journal Hypertension found that this so-called hardening of the arteries—which causes your heart and blood vessels to work harder and less efficiently, increasing heart attack and stroke risks—isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Some people manage to maintain low blood pressure and “arteries that are as soft as people who are in their twenties or teens,” says Teemu Niiranen, M.D., Ph.D., research fellow with the ongoing Framingham Heart Study at Boston University, whose team conducted the new study.

And the lifestyle steps that appear to be most important are the same ones heart health experts have long advocated, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and staying close to normal body weight. “The factors that help these people maintain healthy vasculature are actually the same old stuff that has been conveyed for a long while,” Niiranen says.

“This is yet another piece of a large puzzle showing that adhering to a healthy diet and lifestyle is likely associated with better health outcomes,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University who wasn’t involved with the study.

Once your arteries have hardened, says Lichtenstein, they won't soften back up. “You want to try to avoid stiffening from the beginning,” she says. But it’s never too late to prevent additional damage to your arteries, with key lifestyle steps.

What This Study Tells Us

In the study, researchers looked at blood pressure and pulse wave volume, which measures artery stiffness, to get a picture of overall vascular health for 3,196 adults age 50 and over.

They found that those who followed six of the American Heart Association's (AHA) “Life’s Simple 7” steps for heart health were 10 times more likely to have low blood pressure and flexible arteries than those who didn’t.

The AHA's steps include controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar low, being active, eating a healthy diet, keeping off extra weight, and not smoking. (The seventh step is maintaining normal blood pressure, which the researchers were already measuring.)

Sticking with these heart-healthy strategies can be challenging, Niiranen notes. And the older you are, the more difficult it may be to achieve the desired results. In this study, about 30 percent of study subjects in their 50s had the low blood pressure and supple arteries characteristic of healthy vascular aging—compared with only 1 percent of people 70 and older. 

But it is possible, says Niiranen. Small studies have found that tribal communities in South America, Africa, and Oceania—who subsist on hunting and gathering—tend to have much lower rates of high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and heart disease than those in Westernized cultures.

That's likely, Niiranen says, because they have a far healthier diet and more active lifestyle than many of us do. “We were trying to find, even in Westernized populations, the people who manage to maintain healthy vasculature in old age,” he adds. 

How to Prevent Hardening of the Arteries

To help keep your arteries healthy and reduce heart disease risks, the researchers advise that you: 

Maintain a normal body weight. Excess pounds can burden your arteries and other blood vessels, along with your heart, lungs, and skeleton. Staying at a healthy weight—often measured as a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25—can lower your blood pressure and also help control cholesterol.

Be active. Studies have found that aerobic exercise can help you maintain more flexible arteries, and offers a host of other heart-health benefits. At minimum, aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking (that’s 30 minutes per day five days per week). You can work up to that goal if you need to—start with just 10 minutes per day. If walking for fitness isn't for you, try an activity such as swimming, biking, or yoga.

Eat well. A heart-healthy diet—which is also good for your arteries—should include plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables (four to five daily servings of each), along with legumes and whole grains, instead of more processed grains, such as those in white bread and regular pasta. Choose healthy fats—like those in olive and vegetable oils, avocados, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds—over saturated fat and trans fats.

Keep a close eye on sweets, too. Added sugars, rather than those that occur naturally in fruits, can increase heart risks. The AHA recommends no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men and no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day for women. Though there's no direct link between sodium and stiffened arteries, limiting salty foods can help reduce high blood pressure.

If you smoke, work at stopping. Smoking stiffens arteries. It also raises your overall risk of heart disease, and the effect is especially strong in concert with other cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity or a poor diet.  If you don’t smoke, don’t start.