Women who closely follow a diet designed to lower BP are 24% less likely to develop coronary artery disease, according to a new study. They also reduce their risk of stroke by 18%.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, recommended by NIH, is low in animal protein, moderate in low-fat dairy products, and high in plant protein, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. It has previously been shown to reduce BP among both hypertensive and normotensive patients, but its long-term effect on cardiovascular health was unknown.

The new data come from a study of 88,500 nurses that began in 1976 when the participants were aged 34-59. None had a history of cardiovascular disease (CVD) or diabetes. The nurses were followed for 24 years, and their diet was assessed seven times during this period with validated food frequency questionnaires.

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Researchers reviewed the questionnaires, scoring the women’s adherence to the DASH diet. They found that those who followed DASH the least experienced virtually no protection against CVD events, but as adherence increased, the risk for fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), nonfatal MI, and stroke progressively declined. Those in the highest quintile of adherence experienced a CHD risk reduction of 24% and a stroke reduction of 18%. They also had the lowest levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin, both of which are markers for CVD inflammation.

“This provides the strongest evidence to date on the long-term benefits of the DASH diet in primary prevention of CVD among healthy subjects,” the researchers conclude (Arch Intern Med. 2008;168:713-720). While they are confident that the findings could be generalized for middle-aged women, the researchers caution that further long-term studies are needed for other populations.