Young hearts no longer run free
For a few weeks in December, Dan Cavanaugh felt sluggish and run down. He thought little of it, considering it was cold and flu season. So when the chest pain started, he naturally chalked it up to a bad case of indigestion.
On Dec. 18, 2012, Cavanaugh was struck with undeniable chest pain. Still, he says he didn’t want to feel like a “worry wart.” When the shooting pain down his left arm began, he broke down and called 911, thinking ahead to put his ID and medications in his pocket in case he lost consciousness before the paramedics arrived.
Dan was suffering a heart attack. His story isn’t particularly unique, except for one big difference. Dan is 32.
According to recent medical studies, an increasing number of men and women in their early 40s and 30s—even in their 20s—are being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, the thickening of their arteries that can lead to stroke, heart attack and even sudden cardiac death.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of young people showing signs and symptoms of heart disease,” says Dr. Ajay Baddi, cardiologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. “We’re seeing younger patients who are experiencing irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness.”
While these younger patients remain a small segment of all those treated for heart issues, Dr. Baddi says he’s noticed an increase of as much as 10 percent in the younger population. That’s much greater than just 10 years ago, he says. And often, as in Dan’s case, there may not be outward causes. Dan is naturally slender and keeps active on his job as a restaurant server. But ater his heart attack, doctors discovered he had a 99 percent blockage in one of his coronary arteries. They inserted a stent to open it up. “I really didn’t see this coming,” Dan says. “I’ve never been overweight and I never felt it was an issue. But, I do have a family history (of heart disease).”
A lot of family history. His father had two stents inserted in his early 40s. Both his grandfathers suffered heart attacks as young men, including one in his late 30s. And his cousin passed away at age 36 following a heart attack.
Family history is definitely something even younger people should consider when thinking about their risk for heart disease, says Dr. Baddi. Existing conditions, such as hypertension, elevated cholesterol and diabetes, all add to a person’s heart risk, no matter the age.
It’s equally important to listen to your body. Pay attention when you’re not feeling well and talk openly and honestly with your doctor.
“This trend of younger heart disease sufferers can be seen nationally, without a doubt,” says Dr. Baddi. “Heart disease, hypertension and coronary artery disease are apparent in people even in their 20s. Doctors have autopsied teenagers and are seeing fatty build-up in their blood vessels. It’s rampant in industrialized countries.”
Younger adults can address these issues now. Just as in the older population, a lack of exercise, poor diet and smoking when you’re young all lead to a buildup of heart disease. To prevent the problem, changing these lifestyle habits—often some of the most difficult adjustments to make—are a necessity.
“Exercise, eat right, stay active. We were all 20 at some point. We all thought we were invulnerable, so it’s understandable that it’s very difficult for young adults to proactively change their habits,” says Dr. Baddi. “But that’s what it takes to prevent this your whole life long—a carefully constructed change in lifestyle.”
On the day of his heart attack, Dan was on his way to buy shoes to begin training for the Chicago Marathon. For him, the lifestyle changes were easier than he’d expected, since “the alternative was death.” Only weeks after his heart attack, he rang in the New Year at a heart-healthy party thrown by his friends to support his new lease on life—board games, heart-smart snacks and no alcohol.
Now on the mend and regularly attending cardiac rehabilitation sessions, Dan is looking to lace up his new shoes, starting with a 5K run this spring and training for the Chicago Marathon in 2014. Though he wishes there were more support systems for younger heart patients, he says he has a great group of supportive friends and has connected with another heart disease survivor, with whom he’ll begin training for the marathon.
“Now, I enjoy exercising and cooking for myself more,” he says. “I have made them part of my day. You’re never too young to start listening to your body and paying attention to what you’re putting it through. There’s no reason not to minimize your risk (of heart disease). Life is already too short.”
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