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Heart Disease in Younger People? It Can Happen

Dr. Douglas J. Hart, Cardiology

February 2, 2023

Heart Disease in Younger People? It Can Happen

Risk factors for developing heart disease are known to most of us. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and of course smoking may enhance the risk of heart disease, beginning at a very young age.

From 2017 to 2020, according to the CDC:

  • The prevalence of obesity was 19.7% and affected about 14.7 million children and adolescents.
  • Obesity prevalence was 12.7% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 20.7% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 22.2% among 12- to 19-year-olds.
  • Obesity-related conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems such as asthma and sleep apnea, and joint problems.

Fortunately, there are measures that parents can take to address many of these problems – and the sooner the better.

As with so many matters related to good health, diet and exercise can have a significant impact. Training youngsters to eat healthfully at an early age can establish lifelong habits that will continue to reap benefits and pave the way to a longer healthier life.

This is not to suggest, however, that keeping every snack or treat out of the house is necessarily a good idea. Teaching children to enjoy cookies, ice cream and chips, in limited quantity, rather than emphasizing deprivation can prove to be a good strategy.

Parental modeling is a great resource here. If a younger member of your household sees you routinely going to the cabinet and bringing out a bag of chips, or to the freezer and making a large sundae, they will tend to want to do the same. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely an effective argument, regardless of the situation at hand.

Being mindful of portion control and avoiding sugary drinks are always a good idea. A single serving of chips typically comes out to one ounce or 18 chips. If you’re prone to buying “family-size” bags, limiting anyone – including yourself – to 18 chips can be a challenge.

Instilling a sense of self-discipline is key; doing otherwise is not only a disservice to your kids, but to yourself as well. Everyone in the family needs to get onboard.

Signs to Watch For

Research has shown that almost all children above the age of 10 in developed countries have aortic fatty streaks, lesions that are the beginnings of atherosclerosis; that condition, affecting the inner lining of arterial walls, can over time ultimately lead to everything from heart attack, stroke, and vascular dementia to limb loss and death. A family history of atherosclerosis must not be taken lightly, regardless of a youngster’s age.

Other heart conditions can be present in younger people too. If you notice a significant decrease in activity level – if someone no longer can achieve the same physical feats as they could previously, and/or tire and run out of breath easily – it may be worth a discussion with your physician.

As for diabetes, the CDC reports that about 283,000 children and adolescents younger than age 20 years – 35 per 10,000 U.S. youths – have been diagnosed with the disease, a number that includes 244,000 with type 1 diabetes. (28.7 million people of all ages, or 8.7% of the U.S. population, have been diagnosed with diabetes.)

Other signs to watch out for are heart palpitations – having a sense that the heart is racing, pounding, fluttering, or skipping a beat. By themselves, palpitations do not necessarily indicate the presence of a heart condition; nor do chest pains, which everyone experiences occasionally. But if they happen with exercise, continue even while the person is at rest, or occur frequently, again a trip to the doctor is advised.

Now is the time to step back and take stock of the heart health of all of your family members – including yourself – if you haven’t been doing so. Healthy hearts can make for happy families.

Dr. Douglas J. Hart

Dr. Douglas J. Hart is Director of Echocardiography at White Plains Hospital. He specializes in cardiovascular disease, echocardiography, and nuclear cardiology. For an appointment, call 914-849-4800.