How young is too young for heart disease?
One of the stats I can monitor for my blog is the search terms used to find me. Sometimes these terms are what you would expect, like “what does it feel like to have a heart attack.” Sometimes, however, the terms can be poignant. Twice in the last week or so someone has reached my blog through a search engine with questions about teens having heart attacks. Today it was “what does a heart attack feel like in a 16 year old.” Last week someone found me with “can a 16 year old have a heart attack.”
I don’t know what circumstances caused someone to search for answers to these questions. I remember myself as a teen, diagnosing myself using books from the library, and wonder if this is the 21st century version of that. I hate to think of a young person fearing something as terrible as a heart attack and looking it up on the internet rather than seeking medical attention.
It is true that heart disease is on the rise in younger people, mostly due to increasing rates of obesity and the health problems that come with it, such as diabetes and hypertension. For the most part, the risk of an acute event like a heart attack is quite low in teens, however the seeds are being planted for problems later in life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, chest pain in teens is rarely caused by heart problems, but the possibility of a cardiac cause should not be dismissed without careful assessment. More common causes of chest pain in this age group are anxiety, asthma, too much caffeine, muscle strain, or costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs and sternum). See more on this at healthychildren.org.
In a study of 5547 adolescents aged 12 to 19 done at Northwestern, researchers found alarming levels of high blood sugar, hypertension, overweight and obesity, lack of physical activity, poor diet, and smoking. According to the senior investigator, Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, these factors are leading to a rise in cardiovascular mortality rates in younger adults, aged 35-44, particularly women. This makes me feel like I’m at the leading edge of the curve, having been an obese teen and then having a heart attack at the age of 44. Not the leadership role I ever would have wanted.
The good news is, at such a young age, lifestyle changes can make a lot of difference. This article at the Texas Heart Institute website discusses risk factors of heart disease in children and teens and how to manage them. The main things for teens and their parents to be aware of are diet and exercise. Adopting a healthy diet and increasing physical activity now can make a big difference in 20 or 30 years if these habits are maintained. If you smoke, quitting is crucial to maintaining cardiovascular health. See this article, also at Texas Heart Institute, that explains the damage smoking inflicts on the heart and vasculature and provides some good tips and resources for quitting.
So, if you are a teen having chest pain, do see a doctor to have this assessed. It’s likely your problem is something simple and treatable and talking to your doctor will ease your mind. Discuss your risk factors for heart disease while you are there. It’s never too early to start doing what you can to help yourself live a long, healthy life.