BOSTON — Overall, the rate of heart attacks in the United States is much lower than it once was. This is due to a number of factors, such as a nationwide decline in cigarette use. However, a new study focusing on Americans under the age of 50 has produced troubling results: heart attacks seem to be occurring more often among young adults.
The study, conducted by members of the American College of Cardiology, is the first of its kind to compare young and very young heart attack survivors — those between 41 and 50 years old and 40 or younger, respectively. In total, more than 2,000 heart attack victims under the age of 50 were analyzed.
Its results found that among patients who suffered a heart attack at a young age, 20% were 40 years old or even younger. Furthermore, during the study’s 16 year time period of 2000 to 2016, the proportion of individuals in the “very young” group suffering heart attacks increased by 2% each year for the past 10 years.
“It used to be incredibly rare to see anyone under age 40 come in with a heart attack–and some of these people are now in their 20s and early 30s,” says lead author Dr. Ron Blankstein, a preventive cardiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, in a statement. “Based on what we are seeing, it seems that we are moving in the wrong direction.”
Perhaps even more troubling is that fact that these younger heart attack victims are experiencing the same rate of long-term adverse consequences, such as another cardiac event or stroke, as older heart attack victims.
“Even if you’re in your 20s or 30s, once you’ve had a heart attack, you’re at risk for more cardiovascular events and you have just as much risk as someone who may be older than you,” Blankstein explains. “It’s really important for us to understand why people are actually having heart attacks at a younger age, when there is even more productive life lost.”
Researchers tried to identify the risk factors behind this spike in younger heart attacks, but found that traditional factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, or family history, were very similar between the two age groups. The only identified differences were that the youngest heat attack patients reported more substance abuse, particularly marijuana and cocaine, than older patients. These younger patients also consumed less alcohol.
Dr. Blankstein and his team took note of a non-statistical trend of less aspirin and statin use among very young heart attack patients after being discharged from the hospital. Researchers say this may indicate that many doctors think these patients are at a lower risk of another cardiac event due to their age; a gravely wrong assumption according to the study’s other findings.
At the end of the day, the study’s authors say that a heart attack at any age can be prevented by detecting the warning signs early and making necessary lifestyle changes.
“My best advice is to avoid tobacco, get regular exercise, eat a heart healthy diet, lose weight if you need to, manage your blood pressure and cholesterol, avoid diabetes if you can, and stay away from cocaine and marijuana because they’re not necessarily good for your heart,” Blankstein comments.
The study was presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session in March, 2019.