Vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to be hospitalized or die from heart disease than people who ate meat and fish, scientists at England's Oxford University reported.
The researchers followed almost 45,000 adults, one-third of them vegetarians, for an average of 11½ years and accounted for factors such as their age, whether they smoked, alcohol consumption, physical activity, education and socio-economic background, according to the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"Probably most of the difference is accounted for by the fact that the vegetarians had lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure," Francesca Crowe, one of the authors of the study and a nutritional epidemiologist at Oxford, said in a telephone interview. "Diet is an important determinant of heart disease."
Cardiovascular disease is the biggest cause of death in developed countries and accounted for an estimated 17.3 million deaths in 2008 worldwide, including 6.2 million deaths from strokes, according to the World Health Organization.
The Oxford study reinforces previous research that has concluded a healthy diet can reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of diabetes. Another study of more than 31,000 people who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, published in the journal Circulation in December, found that those who ate a diet that favored fish, vegetables, fruit, beans and nuts over meats and eggs were 35 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.