WASHINGTON — Paul Maher was reading his daughter a bedtime story when he felt the first symptoms.
Moments later, he was in full cardiac arrest.
He remembers little of the events that followed: his wife frantically administering CPR, the ambulance crew putting shock paddles on his chest, the frantic ride to the hospital.
“I smoked, I didn’t eat too well, but no way I expected this to happen at 41,” Maher says. “It came out of nowhere.”
The IT consultant from Arlington, Virginia says he thought he was invincible, that even though his father had a heart attack at 39, he wouldn’t have to worry until he was much older.
In fact, heart attacks and heart disease do occur in younger adults, although most patients are still older than 65.
“There is no question that every young person I have treated who has had a heart attack or has come close to having a heart attack is in shock that they could be having this kind of heart problem,” says Dr. Warren Levy, the president and chief medical officer of Virginia Heart — the largest cardiology practice in the region.
That was certainly the case for Maher, even though he had plenty of risk factors. And when he returned home from the hospital after enduring cardiac arrest, a heart attack and a quintuple bypass, Maher did what you might expect any good IT person to do — he started looking for answers online.
“I went looking for information on the Internet and couldn’t find any that was geared toward me,” he says. “All the information was geared toward a much older demographic.”
His frustration grew over time and eventually he started his own blog called HeartGeek. A good deal of what he writes is about prevention, but there are also posts about recovery. While websites for older patients stress gentle exercise, Maher, for example, writes about pushing the envelope and his plans to run a marathon and try a triathlon.
HeartGeek is part of a small but growing effort to reach out to younger heart patients and meet their unique needs. At Anne Arundel Medical Center, in Annapolis, Maryland, they saw such a surge in young patients that they started a support group to help them cope.
Cardiologist Warren Levy says most of these patients are men, and that women catch up and actually die in greater numbers from heart attacks later in life.
He says heart attacks among the young can be broken into several categories. Some occur in patients, like Maher, with traditional risk factors, while others can be attributed to ruptured arteries, or overuse of drugs like cocaine and amphetamines.
There also is a small group of women who develop a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection around the time of pregnancy that causes a sudden tear in an artery that can be fatal.
Levy says any young adult who has a strong family history, high blood pressure or diabetes should be screened. But he says smoking is far and away the biggest risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Smoking just 10 cigarettes a day increases an individual’s chances of getting coronary disease by 50 percent.
“That’s an amazing number,” Levy says.