There’s a common misconception that heart disease – which can lead to heart attacks and strokes – only occurs in older people.
But the truth is these conditions do not discriminate by age. Fortunately, some of the things you do earlier in your life can help keep you healthy for years to come.
According to Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist for Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, both genetic and lifestyle factors contribute to the development of heart disease in younger individuals.
“Especially in the young, we know that smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for early heart disease and heart attack…” Narula said. “Also cocaine use drives a lot of heart attacks that we see in the young. But if people are pre-disposed to having high-cholesterol, or if they're hypertensive or overweight, these all play in to younger people having earlier heart attacks as well.”
To best prevent heart attacks and stroke, Narula recommends that everyone over the age of 20 have their blood pressure checked every one to two years – as well as their cholesterol every five years. She said this information helps guide physicians towards the best form of treatment for their patients.
“We always ask people about their family history,” Narula said. “We figure out what their cholesterol is, what their blood pressure is, whether they have diabetes, how much they exercise, whether they smoke, how much they drink, and we kind of put all of these together and calculate their risk of having a cardiovascular event in the next 10 years.”
For an individual between the ages of 40 and 79, physicians calculate a cardiovascular disease risk score, depending on the patient’s family history and lifestyle factors. If a person’s risk is 7.5 percent or higher, he or she is often prescribed statins – drugs that help to lower cholesterol. Aspirin has also been shown to help some people who are at high to moderate risk for cardiovascular disease.
“For a man over 50, because they're already over the age of 45, they already have one risk factor for heart disease,” Narula said. “So putting an older man on aspirin is more of an easy decision although it does come with a bleeding risk. But for women, we usually tend to say unless they're moderate or high risk, we really don't recommend it.”
Though patients cannot control their family history or age, Narula encourages everyone to better understand the lifestyle factors that contribute to heart disease – so they can avoid unhealthy habits and ultimately prevent the condition.