Thanks to the advancements in modern medicine, life expectancy rates have steadily increased for men and women over the last several decades.
An average healthy woman can now expect to live to 81 while men normally live to near 76. Despite advances in treatment, coronary heart disease remains the number one killer of Americans in men and women. There are over 1.5 million heart attacks per year and at least half of patients will die before reaching the hospital, often because when the heart muscle is starved for blood, the heart goes into a dangerous rhythm that leads rapidly to death.
Particularly shocking is the increased rate in heart attacks among young people. According to the American Heart Association, people age 50 and younger have almost twice the risk of premature death after a heart attack — mainly due to high blood pressure, smoking and obesity.
Because our society is one that is becoming increasingly sedentary, more young people are exercising less, eating more, drinking alcohol at higher rates than other ages groups and not taking care of themselves as they should, resulting in the increased risk for heart attack.
So what can be done? First we must realize there is no magic age when heart attacks begin. In the past, increased risks for men began at age 45 and women at 55; now we are seeing patients in their 30s, even 20s, having heart attacks that may lead to lifelong effects.
While the rate of heart attacks in the United States has gone down in recent years, studies show it has remained steady in people 50 and under. Now, new research suggests many young heart attack victims have an unexpected risk factor in common: relatively normal levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, but surprisingly low HDL “good” cholesterol.
Abnormal cholesterol is a known risk factor for heart disease, but health care professionals usually worry more about high numbers — both LDL and total cholesterol — than low ones. LDL cholesterol is associated with artery-clogging plaque, while HDL plays a role in clearing LDL from the arteries, reducing inflammation and preventing blood clots.
While just over half of heart attack victims in 1995 had high blood pressure, today nearly 80 percent do. And while the rate of tobacco use has declined significantly over the past 20 years (now less than 20 percent of adults smoke cigarettes), nearly half of heart attack victims are smokers, compared to 28 percent in 1995.
The most important thing you can do to lower your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack is to treat all modifiable risk factors like stop smoking, lose weight, exercise and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Additionally, cholesterol lowering medications may reduce your risk by changing the internal structure of the plaques, making them less likely to rupture. No matter your age, don’t become a statistic. Make sure to visit your health care provider for annual physicals.
And if you are having any heart attack symptoms call 911 immediately! Take care of your heart and your heart will take care of you.
Dr. Ratnakar Mukherjee is an interventional cardiologist at UM Baltimore Washington Medical Center. He can be reached at 410-768-0919.