Many people probably tend to think of heart disease and heart attacks as older people’s ailments. We think they’re the kinds of things that build up over time — often after years of sedentary living, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or diabetes.
But the distressing reality is that heart disease and heart attacks can afflict anyone at any time — including kids and teens who appear to be in robust health.
Perhaps even more worrisome: these problems in young people are often examples of congenital heart disease — meaning they are present from birth — rather than what are thought to be typical risk factors. This includes, in some cases, a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol.
Sometimes heart issues go undetected until problems arise. Certainly, we’re all familiar with the sorrowful stories of young athletes in the prime of their lives falling ill with an undiagnosed heart ailment. Sometimes, these can be deadly. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, for instance, is “the leading cause of death in young athletes.”
The good news, however, is that these problems are very rare.
“Sudden death in people younger than 35, often due to undiscovered heart defects or overlooked heart abnormalities, is rare,” reports the Mayo Clinic. “When these sudden deaths occur, it’s often during physical activity, such as playing a sport, and more often occurs in males than in females.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) says that “sometimes the heart of a child may not function normally. The term ‘heart failure’ describes a heart that’s not functioning properly. It does not mean that the heart has stopped working, but instead that it isn’t working as well as it should.”
They go on to list some possible symptoms of heart disease experienced by children:
Looking at this topic more broadly, there are some troubling signs that heart attack rates are rising among people, especially women, under the age of 54. This while research shows that “heart attack rates in the U.S. have declined in recent decades among 35- to 74-year-olds,” according to the AHA.
The research wasn’t focused on kids or teens, but it does emphasize the point that heart ailments are no longer just something that quote-unquote “old” people need to worry about.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. And doctors are beginning to notice an uptick in the number of teenagers diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol — definite risk factors for heart disease. That’s why it’s vital for everyone to understand the risk factors or things that increase the risk of a heart attack and the risk of heart disease.
Staying heart healthy means taking an active role in one’s own wellbeing as well as that of those for whom we are entrusted to care. Good health and heart-healthy habits can be instilled in young children and teenagers from an early age; physical activity is important — as are good dietary habits.
As U.S. News and World Report documents, heart problems — or the kinds of things that eventually lead to heart problems — “can begin at a very early age,” according to Dr. Gregory Perens, who is a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. That same story notes that beyond genetics, “the earliest risk factors (for heart disease) include maternal smoking while the child is still in utero.”
Doctors recommend breastfeeding infants, if possible; this has been found to lower a child’s risk of developing heart disease later in life.
Another risk factor for heart disease: not getting enough sleep. According to Dr. Claire McCarthy of Harvard Medical School, “Over the past 20 years, the amount of sleep that teens get has dropped significantly. Only about half of them regularly get more than seven hours of sleep, with older teens sleeping less than younger ones — which, given that the recommended amount is eight to 10 hours, is bad news.”
McCarthy cites a study in the journal “Pediatrics” in which researchers found that “those who got less sleep were more likely to have a high ‘metabolic risk score.’ They were more likely to have belly fat, high blood pressure, and abnormal blood lipids, as well as insulin resistance, something that increases the risk of diabetes.”
In other words, a lack of sleep in young people can start a chain reaction of health problems up to and including heart disease.
So, yes, kids and teens can get heart disease and have heart attacks, although it’s very rare and often a result of congenital heart defects. Still, young people in otherwise good health can start on the road to poor heart health without proper guidance.
As adults, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we look out for the health and wellbeing of young people. They are, after all, the future. We should be instilling the values of physical activity and a quality diet from the earliest stages of their development.
Children learn from their parents, so it’s also a good idea to take care of yourself — for your own health and that of your child.
At the Pediatric Cardiology Center of Oregon (PCCO), we provide full-service pediatric cardiology care. Our partnership with Legacy Emanuel Medical Center and the Randall Children’s Hospital positions us at the center of a number of heart-related practices: cardiac imaging, catheter interventions, electrophysiology, and more.
PCCO’s focus is on cardiovascular disease and heart health — just as it has been since 1986. Our pediatric cardiologists have pioneered important advances in the treatment of congenital heart disease. Two examples: We performed the first Norwood surgical procedure for hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) in Oregon and the first arterial switch operation for transposition of the great arteries (TGA).
Contact the Pediatric Cardiology Center of Oregon today with any questions.