Health matters: young people should think about heart health

Mikael Bedell

February 27, 2020

Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women in this country. Many people find out about their heart problems the “hard way” -- having a heart attack, most often in middle to advanced ages. For younger adults, heart disease may seem like an “old person” problem. However, younger adults should be thinking about their heart health for a couple reasons: more adults are experiencing heart problems at earlier ages and being heart healthy when you’re young can prevent problems later in life.

Prevention is the best medicine

So what can young adults do to keep their hearts healthy? I encourage younger patients to start with their lifestyle. As the saying goes “You are what you eat.” Try to eat quality foods. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Consider snacks such as nuts. Ingest whole grains. I recommend that people try to incorporate fish into their diets. Fish is a great source of protein and many types of fish are packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Limit fast food, cookies and candy. Avoid soda pop. Limit alcohol to two drinks daily if a male, one daily for women. Avoid tobacco products. You are what you eat is only part of the equation. You are also “What you do.” Make time for exercise and move when you can. Try to be active most days of the week, even if it just means taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from the grocery store entrance. The little things you do can add up and benefit your health. Find activities that you enjoy and share them with a friend or family member. The heart becomes more efficient when it is used routinely.

In addition to lifestyle, all young adults should get their blood pressure and cholesterol checked. These are two of the leading risk factors for developing heart disease, such as heart attacks and heart failure. They may also lead to strokes and kidney problems. A healthy lifestyle can help with maintaining a normal blood pressure and good cholesterol, helping to maintain your heart health. A healthy lifestyle can help you avoid developing Type 2 diabetes, a major cause of heart problems later in life.

I encourage patients to work to maintain a healthy weight as obesity may contribute to heart problems in various ways. It seems nearly every week I see a patient that has developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat that can lead to serious complications. Many patients who develop atrial fibrillation are overweight or obese and experience sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may lead to atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation can lead to heart failure and strokes.

Family history is important

While our lifestyle choices can clearly affect the chances of developing heart disease, so too does your family tree. Many otherwise healthy young adults may have elevated blood pressure or cholesterol because of their genetics. And other heart problems can run in families, including arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and structural heart disease (heart valve problems or heart muscle development).

For young adults, it’s important to know if any family members have had heart problems, particularly if they were young when they first experienced issues. While it can be difficult to ask family members about personal health problems, it’s important to ask whether they have had blood pressure issues, cholesterol problems, heart attacks, heart failure, arrhythmias or strokes. Try to identify if they and their doctor know what the cause of their heart problems are.

Some people have congenital heart disease, meaning they have heart problems as an infant or young child. These are often related to problems with the development of the heart and may lead to structural problems such as with the heart valves or holes in the heart muscles which can then affect the oxygen in the blood. Some babies and children may experience arrhythmias. While these problems are usually identified and treated early in life, they may not manifest until later on as an adult. Be certain to share this information with your physician even if you’ve been treated and are not currently having problems.

The heart is an amazing organ. While heart specialists are able to address many heart conditions, prevention is always the best medicine. If you take care of your heart it may work for decades and decades without problems. Remember, you are what you eat and do, especially when it comes to your heart. Know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. Ask your relatives what heart problems they may have. And be certain to visit with your family physician annually to find out what you can do to reduce your chance of developing heart disease.

Mikael Bedell, MD is a family medicine physician at St. Peter’s Health. He earned his Doctor of Medicine at The Albany Medical College in Albany, N.Y. and he completed his residency at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho, where he served as chief resident in 1998. He serves as a clinical instructor for The Albany Medical College, Department of Family and Community Medicine; the University of Washington, Department of Family Medicine; and as an adjunct faculty for the University of Utah, Department of Family and Preventative Medicine.