Although we think of heart disease as something that happens to “old people,” the reality is that heart problems can begin at any age. In fact, a recent study found that the rate of heart attacks in younger people (aged 35-54 years) increased from 27% to 32% between 1995 and 2014.1 The increase was even greater for women in this age group, jumping from 21% to 31% over the same time period.
Another study looking at people under 40 years found the proportion of people in this age group having a heart attack increased by 2 percentage points per year over the last 10 years.2 The study reports that one in five people who have a heart attack are under 40 years old.
Since heart problems can begin at any age, it is important to talk to your doctor about your heart – no matter how old you are. There are several routine measurements your primary care physician can take to make sure your heart is healthy, including:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Listening to your heart and lungs
In addition, your doctor can order standard blood tests including cholesterol, blood sugar, and sodium. These tests help determine whether you might be at risk for developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, among other risk factors for heart disease. These are all basic diagnostic tests that your doctor should order at your annual physical. If your doctor does not offer these tests, make sure to ask for them.
It is also important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may have that might be related to your heart. Common symptoms of heart disease, more commonly seen in men, include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Sensation of pressure or squeezing around the heart
In women, the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can be quite different, and many women often mistake a heart attack for something else, like a cold or food poisoning. In addition to the symptoms listed above, women having a heart attack may also experience:
- Pressure in the upper back
- Pressure in the upper abdomen
In children and teenagers, heart problems are usually much less obvious and rarely involve chest pain. Symptoms of heart problems in children and teenagers include:
- Shortness of breath when keeping up with peers
- Inability to physically keep up with peers
- Dizziness with physical activity
- Heart palpitations
- Turning blue around the gums
Make sure to talk to your doctor about any of these symptoms. If you do start to experience these symptoms and you do not have a doctor’s appointment, make one. If your doctor does not ask specifically about your heart, you can bring it up by asking simple questions like:
- How is my heart doing?
- Are my heart rate and blood pressure in the normal range for my age group?
- Is it possible to get some blood work to make sure?
- What are my risk factors for heart disease?
If you think it might be hard for you to bring up heart health with your doctor, you can prepare beforehand by writing down your questions. You can also bring someone with you to your appointment who can support you when you ask these questions.
It is never too early to start paying attention to heart health. Here are some tips to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk factors for heart disease:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. This includes lot of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Limit your consumption of sugar, salt, and fats, especially saturated fat.
- Stay active. Exercise regularly –a 30-minute walk during the day can keep your heart muscle healthy.
- Don’t smoke.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- Avoid drug use, including marijuana.
- Arora, S. et al. 2019. “ Twenty Year Trends and Sex Differences in Young Adults Hospitalized with Acute Myocardial Infarction.” Circulation, 139(8). https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.037137
- American College of Cardiology. 2019. “Heart Attacks Increasingly Common in Young Adults.” https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2019/03/07/08/45/heart-attacks-increasingly-common-in-young-adults
- Advanced Cardiac Life Support Training Center. 2017. “Cardiac Disease in the Young.” https://www.acls.net/cardiac-disease-in-the-young.htm
- Heart attack symptoms in women. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack/heart-attack-symptoms-in-women
- Warning signs of a heart attack. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack
- Heart attack signs and symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/signs_symptoms.htm