Heart disease is not generally thought of as a young person's disease, but being young and fit isn't a guarantee your heart is healthy. Heart disease may not show symptoms until you are middle age or older, but it begins developing much earlier. Knowing the signs and acting in time could be the difference between life and death.
Heart disease occurs when the major coronary arteries (those vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart) narrow or become blocked by a build-up of fatty substances. This narrowing and blockage reduces the flow of blood to the heart muscle, which can result in a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest. Unfortunately for all of us, arteries begin to clog in late childhood and early adolescence.
Heart disease accounted for roughly one out of 16 deaths among those ages 25 to 34 and one out of eight deaths among those ages 35 to 44 in Contra Costa County from 2005 to 2007. Aggressive prevention of heart disease should begin in childhood, when it is easier to manage risk factors. Establish healthy habits and correct harmful ones before the damage begins.
What are risk factors for heart disease? Risk factors include diabetes, smoking, high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity and physical inactivity. Individuals with a family history of heart disease are particularly at risk. Some risk factors are congenital, meaning that people are born with them.
Heart disease can show up as high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest. It affects people at all ages, sizes and shapes.
So, how can you help prevent the “the silent killer”? Start by getting regular checkups in the teen years. Monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol level is important. If your health care provider determines that you are at risk of developing heart disease, he or she may order further tests to assess heart function. Many advocate for heart screenings in youth for the early detection of risk factors and conditions associated with sudden cardiac arrest. Most heart conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest are not detectable with a stethoscope, though many can be detected with simple, noninvasive and painless tests, a comprehensive review of personal and family heart history and the proper assessment and follow-up of warning signs and symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment of heart disease can help prevent death and disability.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are keys in decreasing your chances of heart disease, but they are not a guarantee. Healthy, fit people can and do suffer from heart disease, so it's important to know the signs of:
- Heart attack: discomfort or pain in the center of the chest; discomfort in the arm(s), back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; breaking out in a cold sweat; nausea or light-headedness.
- Stroke: sudden weakness on one side, trouble walking, trouble seeing, trouble speaking or a sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
- Sudden cardiac arrest: someone who collapses and cannot be awakened that is not breathing or not breathing normally.
It is critical to act in time and call 911 immediately. You should also learn CPR. Go to www.cccems.org and click CPR & First Aid Information.
Ms. Dodson is a Prehospital Care Coordinator with the Emergency Medical Services Division of Contra Costa Health Services.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
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