Circulation, the American Heart Association’s weekly journal, has reported that lack of access to nearby stores that sell fresh food may increase local residents’ risk of early heart disease.

The “Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis” (“MESA”) tracked 5,950 adults over 12 years. Atherosclerosis hardens the arteries and contributes to various types of heart disease, according to the AHA.

Earlier studies had found that limited fresh-food choices, and/or easy availability of fast-food restaurants in less-affluent neighborhoods, could lead to unhealthy diets. Residents in such neighborhoods have a greater likelihood of early atherosclerosis, the study found.

“The lack of healthy food stores may help explain why people in these neighborhoods have more heart disease,” said Jeffrey Wing, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, in a press release. He is assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“MESA” researchers explored how the limited availability of recreational facilities, healthy food stores, neighborhood walkability, and social environments might contribute to atherosclerosis.

Researchers used CT scans, at three times during the study, to measure coronary artery calcium in each participant’s arteries. Each one underwent a CT scan at the beginning of the study and, on average, every 3.5 years.

Among “MESA” participants, 86 percent had coronary artery calcium readings.

The study, fortunately, also provides some good news, according to Ella August, Ph.D., the other co-lead author of the “Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.” She is clinical assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“We found that healthy food stores within one mile of their (participants’) home was the only significant factor that reduced or slowed the progression of calcium buildup in coronary arteries,” August said.

She added, “Our results point to a need for greater awareness of the potential health threat posed by the scarcity of healthy grocery options in certain neighborhoods.”

“MESA,” which is sponsored by the National Heart and Lung Institute of the National Institutes of Health, is ongoing.