Risk factors for heart attacks can begin accumulating during teenage years

February is American Heart Month, and a D.C.-area doctor warns that heart health shouldn’t be ignored by younger generations.

“We see, actually, the beginnings of cholesterol plaque formation in teenage years,” said Dr. Robert Lager, president of MedStar Cardiology Associates and regional director of ambulatory cardiology for MedStar Health.

“Aggressive heart disease prevention should begin in childhood; it shouldn’t wait until you’re an older person,” he said.

Lager said study data shows teenagers who have died in accidents, young soldiers killed in combat and teenage heart transplant donors found that one out of six teenage donors had significant plaque already in their arteries. Lager said this finding is “stunning.”

A recent survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that 80% of people don’t know that the proper time to start getting their cholesterol tested is in their 20s. Lager said too few people know the risk factors for heart disease, according to a recent survey of people with the average age of 30.

“Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, drug use — 65% couldn’t identify any of them, which is pretty amazing,” Lager said.

Lager said smoking is the most high-risk activity that younger people do.

“And it’s the single most important risk factor for developing heart artery disease,” he said. “This actually includes secondhand smoke, so this goes for both parents and children.”

One way to help convince younger people to be heart healthy early, Lager said, is to tell them it will help keep them young longer.

“You take a 50-year-old man who has a one in two chance of developing heart disease the rest of his life — a 50% chance he will have a heart attack or die of heart disease,” Lager said.

“But, if you look at studies in a man who is free of these risk factors — no cholesterol problems, no blood pressure problems, no diabetes, not obese, doesn’t smoke — they have a remarkably low 5% risk of developing cardiovascular disease by the age of 95,” Lager said.

You can find more heart-healthy lifestyle tips on the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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