If you’re a 20-, 30-, or 40-something, you’re probably not too worried about having a heart attack. After all, only older, overweight people are at risk, right? Er, wrong.
In fact, according to research from Harvard Medical School, anywhere from four to 10 percent of the approximately 735,000 heart attacks that occur annually happen to those under 45. That number is comprised mostly of men, but guys aren’t the only ones who should be nervous. Heart disease (which can lead to a heart attack) is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S., says Sindhu Koshy, M.D., a cardiologist with Ascension/Crittenton Hospital in Rochester, Michigan, with a whopping one in three women’s deaths attributed to the disease each year. What’s more, Koshy says the number of young people having heart attacks and strokes has been growing each year.
The U.S. government designated February as American Heart Month back in 1963—but given today’s scary stats, there’s never been a more critical time to assess your health and take steps to keep your ticker in tip-top shape. Keep reading to learn about the biggest risk factors for heart disease and heart attacks, signs you’re having a heart attack, and tips for taking care of arguably your most important organ.
Why a Growing Number of Young People Are Having Heart Attacks
“Heart attacks—or myocardial infarctions—occur most often in people with a family history of heart disease and in those with risk factors like diabetes or smoking,” says J. Lee Jenkins, M.D., an emergency physician in Baltimore.
Koshy points out that many people under age 50 don’t seek regular routine medical care, but that doing so would help preventable problems like diabetes or high blood pressure to be diagnosed early. Factors like poor diet (eating too much salt, sugar, and fatty foods, and not getting the recommended servings of fruits, veggies, and whole grains), stress, and lack of exercise might also contribute to the growing number of heart attacks in this age group, she says. “Younger working people are so busy that they forget to take time for themselves,” she says. “Fast food and sedentary lifestyles are a dangerous norm these days.”
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Signs You’re Having a Heart Attack
Contrary to popular belief, pain that radiates down your left arm isn’t the only symptom of a heart attack—although it certainly is one of them. According to Jenkins and Koshy, there are quite a few other signs, including: chest pressure or tightness (which Koshy says some describe as “something heavy sitting on their chest”), shortness of breath, cold sweats, sudden fatigue, and nausea.
While men and women could experience any of these, there are a few other heart attack symptoms that are women-specific, although docs don’t know why it’s just women who experience them. Women may have pain in their stomachs rather than their chests, which may feel like heartburn, says Koshy. They could also experience pain between the shoulder blades or even in the jaws, gums, or teeth.
“Heart attacks are often not the worst pain your life,” says Koshy. “The pain is usually less severe than that. Still, anything that you feel is out of the ordinary should be evaluated by a physician,” she says.
The Best Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy
The good news is that heart disease is largely preventable, says Koshy. So, what can you do to protect yourself from getting heart disease and potentially having a heart attack? “The people in the world with the lowest [incidences of] heart disease live a low-stress lifestyle, eat a diet rich in vegetables and lean protein, and exercise or walk regularly each day,” says Jenkins. “This type of lifestyle also usually leads to a lower body weight and decreased chance of diabetes and hypertension.” (Countries with the lowest rates of heart disease deaths include France, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and Israel.)
The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderately-intense exercise five days a week (the perfect excuse to try that new kickboxing class at your gym), plus around four servings of veggies a day to promote cardiovascular health. And OK, we get that chilling out is easier said than done, but these 12 natural strategies for de-stressing might just help you relax.
Pin this handy infographic to keep your heart health facts on-hand: