Feb. 5 (UPI) -- People diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol often let heart-healthy habits slip after starting treatment with prescription drugs, a new study has found.
In an analysis published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Finnish researchers found adults at risk for heart disease and stroke who took cholesterol- or blood pressure-lowering medications were more likely to reduce their activity levels and gain weight over time than those not on drug treatment.
"Medication shouldn't be viewed as a free pass to continue or start an unhealthy lifestyle," study co-author Maarit J. Korhonen, senior researcher at the University of Turku in Finland, said in a press release. "People starting on medications should be encouraged to continue or start managing their weight, be physically active, manage alcohol consumption and quit smoking."
Heart-healthy lifestyle habits -- like exercise and a balanced diet -- are always recommended whether or not blood pressure or cholesterol medications are prescribed.
Korhonen and her colleagues assessed more than 40,000 public-sector workers in Finland who had not been previously diagnosed with heart disease or stroke. On average, participants were 52 years of age at the beginning of the study, and 80 percent of them were female.
Each participant was given two or more surveys in four-year intervals between 2000 and 2013. The surveys assessed BMI, physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking history.
The researchers also obtained pharmacy data if they began taking the prescribed high blood pressure or statin medications, categorizing medication use based on those who began the preventive medications between the start of the study and the four-year follow-up surveys and those who did not start medications.
Compared to those who did not start medications, the researchers found that those who did were 8 percent more likely to become physically inactive. They also noted that those on medication were 82 percent more likely to become obese or have an increase in body mass index.
The researchers note that, because of a public health initiative in Finland, as well as variations in the habits of participants -- such as smoking, the cessation of which can affect weight gain, and a lack of specific information on participant diets -- the results of the study may not be broadly generalizable. But, they say, the research suggests that many slack off in lifestyle habits when they start drug treatment.
"Our findings support the notion that there is scope to improve management of lifestyle-related risk factors among individuals who have initiated preventive medication," researchers wrote in the study. "Patients' awareness of their risk factors alone seems not to be effective in improving health behaviors."