Heart Disease

Young women's version of this guide

Many people believe that heart disease only affects older men. This is a stereotype that is not true. The reality is, heart disease is the #1 cause of death for both men and women in the United States. It affects more people than cancer, mental health conditions, or any other medical condition. In fact, every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack or stroke.

What is cardiovascular/heart disease?

Cardiovascular disease is a broad term that is used to describe any disease involving the heart (Cardiac) and/or the blood vessels (Vascular). Cardiovascular disease or heart disease, generally refers to a process where the blood vessels that feed the heart or brain become narrow or even blocked due to a condition called, atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a process by which fat, cholesterol and other substances form “plaque” in the blood vessels. The plaque sticks to the walls of the blood vessels and hardens causing the blood flow to slow down and in some cases stop. This can lead to a heart attack (when it occurs in the heart) or an ischemic stroke (when it occurs in the brain).  Atherosclerosis is usually the cause of most heart attacks and strokes and it begins during the late teen and early 20’s.

Why should I care about heart disease?

It’s important to learn about heart disease, so that you can know how to lower your risk. Researchers have found that heart attacks and strokes do not just affect older adults. Cardiovascular disease also affects young adults and it is occurring more frequently among younger adults (< 35 years old).  Also, heart disease may be silent for years before causing any noticeable problems, which is why it’s important to develop and maintain heart healthy habits before long term medical problems, such as heart attack or stroke, develop.

You can lower your risk of heart disease by aiming for a heart healthy lifestyle.

A heart healthy “lifestyle” includes: a healthy diet, daily exercise, and staying smoke-free.

  1. A heart healthy diet includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and non-fried fish, nuts and legumes. Don’t be discouraged if your diet doesn’t look like this. Small steps over time add up to big changes! Begin by choosing a piece of fruit instead of a sugary or salty snack or by replacing soda/fruit juices with water.
  2. Exercise: Aim for at least 60 minutes of aerobic exercise (activities that get you sweating) every day. You can do this by running with friends, playing a sport, joining your neighborhood gym or recreation center, dancing or doing other activities that you enjoy.
  3. Staying smoke-free: This means not using cigarettes or e-cigarettes. Research studies show that ingredients in e-cigarettes including: nicotine, propylene glycol and flavoring particles can irritate and damage your blood vessels. Compared to non-smokers, e-cigarette users have a 2-5x higher risk of having a heart attack.

What are the genetic risk factors for heart disease?

While lifestyle can make a big difference in preventing heart disease, some people will naturally be at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other conditions that increase their risk for heart disease because these conditions run in their families. It’s important to learn about your family’s medical history and tell your health care provider if anyone in your family has heart problems. This is important because people with genetic conditions can develop a heart condition at an earlier age. If your HCP (health care provider) thinks you are at risk of heart disease, you may need lipid testing at an earlier age. Some youth need to take medicines to lower cholesterol and other levels.

How can I talk to my health care provider (HCP) about my heart health?

Tell your HCP about your current lifestyle, including your diet, exercise habits, and stress factors such as school, work, relationships with family/friends etc. Ask your HCP for advice about how to balance these aspects of your life, as all of them can affect your heart health.

Heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes is the #1 medical problem affecting both men and women in the United States. The challenge of heart disease is that it is a gradual process that can be silent for many years before any obvious problems occur. However, research shows that the beginning stages of heart disease start during the teenage years. That’s why following a healthy diet, exercising, and staying smoke free as a teen/young adult is important. Talk to your health care provider about how to include heart healthy habits into your life.