Improving your heart health may be as simple as making small behavioral changes – a new study of behavioral health interventions suggests that they are effective at helping people alter their lifestyles and lead to physical changes that could improve overall health.
The findings also indicate a shift is needed in the way such interventions are evaluated by researchers and used by health care providers, said Dr. Veronica Irvin of Oregon State University, a co-author of the study just published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Behavioral treatments such as individual counseling or group training to improve nutrition or physical activity, reduce or stop smoking, or adhere to a drug treatment plan, often are overlooked because medical care providers tend to believe it is too difficult for people the make changes to their established lifestyles, said Dr. Irvin, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.
But large clinical drug trials for potential new medications often fail to show that those treatments make patients better, and drugs sometimes are associated with undesirable side effects, she said. Modification of health behavior is another option for health providers and their patients, Dr. Irvin explained, but is underutilized in clinical medical practice as well as in public health policy because many providers remain unconvinced that people can change their behavior to improve their health.
She and her co-author, Dr. Robert M. Kaplan of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, conducted a comprehensive and systematic review of large-budget studies funded by the National Institutes of Health that involved behavioral interventions such as individual counseling or group training to improve nutrition or physical activity, reduce or stop smoking, or adhere to a drug treatment plan.
More than 80 percent of the randomized clinical trials that included a behavioral intervention reported a significant improvement for the targeted behavior and a significant physiological impact such a reduction in weight or blood pressure. Greater improvements were observed when the intervention simultaneously targeted two behaviors, such as nutrition and physical activity, which are considered lifestyle behaviors.
“This research suggests that behavioral interventions should be taken more seriously,” Dr. Irvin said. “It indicates that people are able to achieve realistic behavioral changes and improve their cardiovascular health.”
But the researchers also noted that few of the studies documented morbidity and mortality outcomes that are often required for drug trials. Previous research by Dr. Irvin and Kaplan found that most drug trials fail to reduce mortality. Behavioral interventions should be studied in a similar fashion, Dr. Irvin said.
“There are more positive outcomes with these trials, but they don’t often measure mortality,” Dr. Irvin said.