Heart attacks on the rise in younger Canadians, experts say

Unemployed Coloradans sit through the opening session of the 'Job Hunters Boot Camp' on April 19, 2010 in Aurora, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images

Does this sound familiar? Young Canadians are working more, some average 70 to 80 hours a week, leaving no time to exercise, eat well or for stress relief. This has resulted in more Canadians having heart attacks in their 30s and 40s. Allison Vuchnich with the second part of our series – Your Healthy Heart.

TORONTO – Chris Downey was in the office working up to 70 hours a week under high stress.

He had his lunch at his desk, taking bites in between phone calls and managing incoming assignments. His long days in front of the computer were juggled with taking care of his wife and young daughter.

At only 39 years old, in August 2011, he had a heart attack.

It happened at work after a night of pain in his shoulder. By the following morning, in the middle of his daily routine at work, he broke into a sweat and his coworkers noted his face turn pale.

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Within minutes an ambulance arrived and he was sent to hospital where a stent was put in his artery that was 100 per cent blocked.

Having a heart attack at 39 years old is a rarity, doctors say. But in Canada, heart disease is no longer your parents’ condition.

As young Canadians are working more, leaving no time to exercise or eat well and relieve stress, they’re leaving their heart health vulnerable.

Doctors suggest these young Canadians are ticking time bombs.

Heart attacks in young Canadians on the rise

“We sometimes have individuals in their 20s who have massive heart attacks and are crippled for life,” Dr. Douglas Lee, a cardiologist with University Health Network in Toronto, said.

Nine out of 10 Canadians these days have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke. And these risk factors, that we so easily ignore, are rising “dramatically” in young people, Lee notes.

And their choices – from working late, ignoring a diet or skipping the gym – catches up.

“Right now, we may not even suspect heart disease in those people but in 10, 20 years, those people with multiple cardiac risk factors who are young are going to lead a greater incidence of heart disease in the future,” he said.

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Traditionally, heart disease affects Canadians over the age of 65. Under the age of 50 is “certainly” young, meanwhile there are now people in their 30s or 40s managing heart disease.

It’s an alarming trend.

Data on emergency room visits gathered by the Canadian Institutes for Health Information for Global News document an upward trend of people as young as 20 having heart attacks.

For those 20 to 44 years old, there were 836 emergency room visits for heart attacks from 2006 to 2007. Four years later (in 2010 to 2011), that number jumps to 1,138.

It’s the same story for older demographics: 5,146 people between 45 to 64 were in emergency rooms to treat heart attacks in 2006 to 2007, but by 2010, there were 8,250.

Lee says that there’s a tendency to blame genetics on this increase in heart disease, but there are more factors at play.

There are greater numbers of obesity, inactivity, high cholesterol in younger Canadians, he said. Overall, people are developing heart disease at an earlier age.

“I think there’s a tendency to think when we’re young, we’re invincible. And we can do whatever we want and ignore heart health,” he said.

But the effects on the body happen faster than young people realize.

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“When we look at studies of young individuals and do a detailed imagery of their arteries and their heart, we can already see that their evidence of hardening or blockages or arthrosclerosis of the arteries and fat in the organs,” Lee said.

Heart health and women

While heart disease is still perceived to be a man’s condition, it’s actually the number one killer of women.

Plenty of factors are at play in trying to explain why this is the case, according to Dr. Karin Humphries, a research scientist at St. Paul’s Hospital.

For starters, women live longer than men so they tend to accumulate more co-morbid conditions – diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, to name a few. This doesn’t help their cardiovascular health.

But women are also under a lot of stress.

“So that’s not because of more co-morbid conditions. We speculate that it may just be more stress, less support,” Humphries said.

She noted that women these days make up the sandwich generation: not only are they juggling work with home life, but they’re looking after kids and their parents.

“We do know from our study that the level of anxiety and stress and depression is worse in younger women than it is in younger men. Whether that’s directly related to the multi-tasking they do in their lives is speculation, but I think it’s highly likely,” she said.

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Humphries urges women to ask their doctors the right questions – consider your blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure, for instance. Her findings suggest that women tend to get a check up with their doctors more frequently than men.

“The other key message is that young women, women 55 years of age and younger, need to understand that they actually are at risk of heart disease and that they can and should take steps to reduce their risks,” she said.

Pay attention to the signs, heart attack survivors warn

Grace Dierssen was 44 when she had a heart attack.

She had a demanding job in e-commerce, making sure systems run efficiently.

“I carried a Blackberry, where I was on-call and I was expected to respond to issues at all times, day or night, so that could impact, obviously, sleep and any type of personal life,” she told Global News.

Just three days after her birthday, she felt a crushing pain in her chest while getting ready for work.

In the middle of a conference call, she felt pain shoot up her left arm and into her neck.

An angiogram shows that in her circumflex artery, she had a 55 per cent blockage as cholesterol built up in that part of her heart chamber.

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“I was very disappointed in myself that it was happening. I felt, immediately at that point, that I was letting myself down, I had let myself down to get to that point,” she said.

But the heart attack helped her make drastic changes in her lifestyle.
She quit her job, and is focusing now on taking care of her health, through exercise and eating healthy.

“I can’t emphasize it enough to women … be aware of your body, listen to your body,” she said.

“If there’s something not right going on, by all means, go to the doctor, get it checked out.”

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