Young people at high risk for heart disease

Heart disease is no longer an ailment for the older generation.

Young people who may be the ‘picture of health’ could be hiding a deep dark secret inside their bodies according to a new study from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Atherosclerosis, a buildup of fat in the artery walls, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, or even death, is affecting more and more young people, and they don’t even know it. Dr. Eric Larose, an interventional cardiologist at the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec and an assistant professor at Université Laval, said the numbers from the study are “staggering.”

For some young people, if a change in lifestyle is not made now, it could result in heart problems in early adulthood.

One hundred and sixty-eight adults between the ages of 18 and 35 took part in the study, half male and half female, and with no known history of premature heart disease, diabetes, smoking, high blood cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

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While regular measurements were taken such as height, weight, etc., researchers also performed MRIs to measure body fat deposits, such as subcutaneous fat, (under the skin), and fat in and around the abdomen and chest. MRIs were also used to look at the atherosclerosis volume of the carotid arteries.

Although many people did not have what is called ‘traditional’ risk factors for atherosclerosis, more discrete signs such as greater waist circumference and visceral fat covering the internal organs in the chest and abdomen were found in a large number of participants.

“We know obesity is a bad thing,” said Larose “but we’re dropping the ball on a large proportion of young adults who don’t meet traditional measures of obesity such as weight and BMI.”

Even if someone has a normal weight and BMI for their size and age, if they have a greater amount of visceral fat they can be at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes later on.

“We were encouraged to find that in this young and apparently healthy population, an easy way to measure risk in the doctor’s office is through waist circumference,” said Larose.

The larger the waist, the more at risk.

In an earlier study from the United States, as many as 80 per cent of young Americans killed in war or in car accidents had premature and hidden atherosclerosis.

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Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in Canada, said Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson. “Someone in this country dies from heart disease or stroke every seven minutes,” she said. “The good news is that heart disease and stroke are largely preventable by undertaking heart healthy behavior.”

“You can think of it as a ticking time bomb inside your body that might explode later in life,” she added. “There is a lot you can do to defuse the explosion.”

It is recommended that no matter what your age, follow a healthy diet, be physically active, maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, limit alcoholic beverages, reduce stress, and manage diabetes.

“My message to young adults is that you are not superhuman, you’re not immune to risk factors,” said Abramson. “It’s important to manage your risk factors at all ages. Lifestyle will eventual catch up with you. You are never too young to prevent heart disease.”