If you try to talk to a teenager about health issues, you’ll almost always be met with an eye roll. It’s pretty much ingrained in young people’s minds that they’re untouchable — and worrying about things like heart health is for the old folks. But a new study suggests that the risk factors of heart disease in young adults can be permanent, and the choices we make when we're young can have seriously lasting impressions. After 40 may be too late to completely reverse some of the damage that has already been done, and the findings of this study are so worrisome, doctors are calling this a “wake up” call.
Dr. Andrew Moran, a principal investigator at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York was the senior author of the study. Researchers used data from multiple studies, including the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study; the Cardiovascular Risk Development in Young Adults study; the Cardiovascular Health Study, and more. Using the collective data, they included 36,030 adults in the U.S., over the median course of 17 years. Researchers looked at risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart failure, and stroke in one group aged 18 to 39 and another group aged 40 and older.
The study found that participants who had an elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in young adulthood were 64 percent more likely to have coronary heart disease when they were older, independent of these values in adulthood. High systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) in young adults were associated with a 37 percent and 21 percent increased risk, respectively, of heart failure later in life.
Cholesterol and blood pressure can be confusing, so here’s the breakdown of what these words mean: LDL cholesterol is considered “bad cholesterol.” A high level of this type of cholesterol in your arteries can cause build-up, which can be life-threatening. LDL levels are measured through a blood test, and should be less than 100 mg/dL. SBP is the top number you get from your doctor in a blood pressure reading. It represents the pressure in your arteries that’s present when your heart beats or contracts. DBP is the bottom number read off by your doctor, and represents the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed, in-between beats. EurekAlert also notes that “While no young adult exposures were independently associated with stroke, increased levels of high later life SBP or DBP were strong predictors of stroke.” Blood pressure is considered normal if the SBP number is lower than 120. The bottom number, or DBP number should be less than 80.
“Our results add to accumulating evidence that young adulthood is a critical period when high blood pressure or cholesterol are particularly harmful. Maintaining optimal levels of blood pressure and LDL cholesterol throughout young adulthood could yield substantial lifetime cardiovascular disease prevention benefits,” Moran said in Medicalxpress.com.
Dr. Samuel Gidding and Dr. Jennifer Robinson published an editorial piece in response to these findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. They call for the entire medical community to wake up and take risk factors more seriously in adults under the age of 40, and change the way they serve those patients who might be at risk. They call for more clinical trials in young adults, and developing medical strategies that are based in and tailored to “genetics, imaging, and other risk factors.”
It’s time to treat young adults differently when it comes to medical treatment. Their age does not make them “untouchable” to risk factors that are associated with heart disease as they get older.
If you are under the age of 40, even if you feel healthy, make sure you stay connected to medical care. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends blood pressure screening in adults over the age of 18, which you can have done at a doctor’s office or pharmacy. Cholesterol screening is also recommended over the age of 20 or 35, depending on your risk factors and your gender. Make sure you are following a heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, and get at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least five times a week.
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