MONDAY, Nov. 15 (HealthDay News) -- New research shows that few Americans make the simple lifestyle changes that experts say could prevent most cases of heart disease.

In fact, one study of almost 18,000 people found that only .01 percent followed all seven health factors outlined by the American Heart Association (AHA) as critical for living long healthy lives.

The so-called "Life's Simple 7" were outlined by the AHA at the beginning of this year and are intended to reduce deaths from heart disease by 20 percent, while improving cardiovascular health by 20 percent over the next decade.

They are: don't smoke, maintain a body-mass index (BMI) within the normal range; exercise regularly; eat a healthy diet; and keep your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar low.

But most Americans just aren't making the grade, according to a number of studies presented Monday at the AHA's annual meeting in Chicago.

"We know that only one-third or so have a BMI of less than 25 percent, so you can eliminate that," said Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, and past president of the AHA. "Physical activity, many people are failing -- probably only 20 or 25 percent are meeting the goals of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week."

The latest research backs this claim up.

In the study of almost 18,000 adults, only 29 percent of black and white Americans had four or more of these factors at ideal levels, even though the study also found that having more of these lifestyle components under control meant fewer deaths at a younger age. Meeting five or more of the factors decreased mortality by 55 percent. Each added ideal health factor lowered the risk of dying by 18 percent over the four years of the trial.

A second study, this time of almost 80,000 healthy women, found that more than half of all sudden cardiac deaths could have been prevented if four lifestyle factors were kept in check: not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, eating well and exercising. Women with two ideal factors reduced their risk of sudden cardiac death by 33 percent, while those with three factors lowered their risk by half. With four ideal factors, the risk went down by 77 percent.

Indulging in one alcohol drink a day took the number of sudden cardiac deaths in the women who had all five healthy factors down to only one.

Similarly, another study found that having these factors at ideal levels -- blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar among nonsmokers -- translated into lower levels of coronary artery calcium and carotid artery thickness, risk factors that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

But, again, Americans were falling short of goals, with only 12 percent of men and 13 percent of women scoring well on all four factors.

"The findings aren't surprising, but the question is does this mean that you should measure coronary artery calcium and carotid artery thickness?" said Dr. Rita Redberg, an AHA spokeswoman and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco. "I can already advise you that you should have healthy lifestyle habits without doing imaging tests."

And in fact, the AHA, in conjunction with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), recently issuing a statement saying "More tests do not necessarily add up to a better diagnosis." Instead, a quick survey of risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, age, sex and family history is "the strongest tool a doctor can use in predicting the likelihood of heart disease."

Many Americans may be blaming their bad health on genetic factors, but a fourth study presented at the AHA conference finds that genes contribute little to the problem, accounting for only 18 percent of cardiovascular health at age 40 and even less, 13 percent, at age 50.

"It's true that genetic factors play a small role," Redberg said. "It's helpful for patients to focus on things that can be changed. Diet and physical activity can be changed, and smoking can be stopped. Study after study after study shows that people who eat a good diet -- fruits and vegetables and grains -- exercise regularly [and] don't smoke live longer and have fewer heart attacks. You can't beat it."

More information

Visit the American Heart Association for more on Life's Simple 7.