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Age and Heart Disease

Woman holding foam heart

Picture someone at risk for heart disease. You probably are picturing someone north of 50, maybe carrying a noticeable amount of extra weight, walking at a slower pace than the rest of the crowd. While that may be an accurate picture of some people at risk for heart disease, you actually need to widen your focus quite a bit. "The risk for coronary artery disease starts developing in our 20s and 30s," said John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health. "There really is no such thing as 'too young' when it comes to protecting your heart health."

That's good advice considering that heart disease is now the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. As obesity rises in the country and people become more sedentary, more people are putting their hearts at risk. Of course, regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking can all reduce the risk of heart disease. "It's always easier to prevent a condition than to reverse it," said Ryan. "So, if you start taking your heart health seriously before you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or other preceding conditions, you will be a lot better off."

Genetics can also play a role in heart disease risk - especially when it comes to a not-often-discussed lipid known as lp(a). High levels of this lipid can increase the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke - even in younger people. It is estimated that roughly one in five Americans have high lp(a) levels due to genetic factors inherited from their parents. "If your family has a history of heart disease, you may want to be tested for lp(a)," said Ryan. "However, the treatment is still the same: Manage your risk factors like diet and exercise."

The bottom line is this: While you may picture an older, overweight, sedentary person as the poster child for heart disease, the truth is they didn't suddenly wake up that way one morning. Neither will you. Years of bad eating habits, lack of exercise and believing 'I'm too young to be at risk' will pile up until you too are facing heart disease. That is, unless you take action now. It's as easy as getting 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week to significantly decrease your risk. "We have a lot of awareness around skin cancer, breast cancer, and similar diseases," Ryan said. "It's time we have the same awareness about heart disease and do all we can to prevent it."