Heart Disease Starts Sooner Than You Think - Wakunaga of America

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Heart Disease Starts Sooner Than You Think

Think you or your kids are too young to worry about cardiovascular disease? Think again! While most of us assume that problems like high cholesterol or blood pressure are reserved for those over the age of 60, the truth is heart disease can begin decades earlier. In fact, recent studies show that a growing number of children and young adults are already living with serious risk factors that could set them up for a future heart attack or stroke.

Consider these startling statistics:

  • 3 million people age 18 to 39 have borderline high or high LDL cholesterol levels. That’s more than one-quarter of all people in that age group.1
  • According to the CDC, one in seven teens, age 12 to 19, have high blood pressure.2
  • Plaque in arteries can start to build up during childhood, eventually leading to an artery-clogging condition known as atherosclerosis.3

Making matters worse, young adults and the parents of kids under 18 are often unaware that they or their kids have one or more of these risk factors. One reason cardiovascular disease in the young falls under the radar is that many doctors don’t test for these risk factors in those under 40, despite urging by the American Academy of Pediatrics to test cholesterol levels in children as young as 9 years old and again at age 17.4 And the CDC advises parents to ask their child’s pediatrician to check blood pressure as early as age three! 2

Early Signs of Cardiovascular Disease

High cholesterol and high blood pressure typically don’t have any symptoms. So how can you tell if you or your child should be tested? Fortunately, the following factors can point to a higher than average risk in children, teens, or young adults:

  • Are overweight or obese.
  • Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • Having a family history of cardiovascular disease.
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Routinely eating a diet filled with ultra-processed food.
  • Smoking, vaping, or exposure to second-hand smoke.5,6

Are These Heart Disease Risk Factors Really That Bad? 

Numerous studies have drawn a direct link between future cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or atherosclerosis in the young. Getting to know how developing these factors in early life can up the odds of a later heart attack, stroke, or even sudden cardiac death can help you get a jump-start on prevention.

Atherosclerosis. This common condition can begin in childhood and develops slowly throughout life as cholesterol, fatty substances, calcium, and cellular waste forms a sticky substance called  plaque. As this plaque builds up inside your arteries, it causes them to narrow, reducing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to your tissues. Over time, plaque can build up to the point where it reduces or blocks blood flow in an artery.7 A piece of plaque can also break off and block an artery, causing a heart attack, stroke, or sudden death.8

High Blood Pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure occurs when the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high. When you have high blood pressure, your heart and your arteries have to work harder to circulate blood throughout your body. Over time, this damages the tissues that make up the inner lining of your arteries, creating the perfect environment for the buildup of plaque. The more plaque increases, the narrower your arteries become, and this further raises your blood pressure, starting a vicious cycle that can harm your arteries, heart, and the rest of your body.9 In addition to heart attack and stroke, studies show that high blood pressure can lead to heart failure, kidney disease, sexual dysfunction, and vision loss.10,11,12,13

What’s considered a healthy blood pressure and when should you be concerned? Here’s what’s the American Heart Association has to say:14

Systolic (Top Number) Diastolic (Bottom Number)
Normal Less than 120 Less than 80
Elevated 120-129 Less than 80
Stage 1 Hypertension 130-139 80-89
Stage 2 Hypertension 140 or higher 90 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis Higher than 180 Higher than 120

 

High Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body makes, and surprisingly it’s not inherently bad. In fact, your body needs cholesterol to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. But too much low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, especially if it’s oxidized, can increase the buildup of arterial plaque. On the flip side, high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol since it carries LDL to the liver where it’s then flushed from the body. This, in turn, can lower the risk for heart attack or stroke. Since it’s important to know where you stand, here’s a quick “cheat sheet” to cholesterol levels by age group:15

 

Healthy Borderline High
People under

age 20

HDL: 45 mg/dl or higher

LDL: < 110 mg/dL

Total: < 170 mg/dL

LDL: 110-129 mg/dL

Total: 170-199 mg/dL

LDL: 130 mg/dL or higher

Total: 200 mg/dL or higher

People over

age 20

HDL: 40 mg/dl or higher for men; 50 mg/dL or higher for women

LDL: < 100 mg/dL

Total: < 200 mg/dL

LDL: 130-159 mg/dL

Total: 200-239 mg/dL

LDL: 160-189 mg/dL

Total: 200 mg/dL or higher

 

Heart Healthy Action Plan for Kids, Teens, and Young Adults

The first step for prevention is knowing your (or your child’s) numbers. This is especially true if one or more of the risk factors ring true. Once you have the data, you can take these four actions to bring your cholesterol and blood pressure into a healthier range without resorting to medications. It may also help to keep atherosclerosis in check.

Level up your food choices. If you need yet another reason to eat healthier, two new studies have linked a diet high in ultra-processed food (think Doritos, Twinkies, and sugary sodas) to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.16,17 In another study, ultra-processed food consumption among preschoolers predicted higher total cholesterol levels from preschool to school age.18 What to do? Trade in unhealthy junk food for a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil.19

Get moving! Spending too much time playing video games or scrolling on your phone can contribute to a sedentary lifestyle that can undermine heart health. Balance your screen time with some daily activity that raises your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.20

Add a supplement. A growing number of studies show that supplementing with Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) can improve both blood pressure and cholesterol levels while preventing the accumulation of calcium in arteries. In one 2020 clinical trial of 104 people, supplementing with a daily dose of AGE significantly discouraged the progression of coronary artery calcification and reduced systolic blood pressure and inflammation that can damage arteries.21  Earlier research reports that taking AGE resulted in a 7 percent drop in total cholesterol and a 10 percent decrease in LDL cholesterol in men.22  Note: since virtually all studies, including these, are  conducted on adults, do check with your pediatrician or family doctor before giving a child AGE or any other supplement.

 

Although the risk factors for cardiovascular disease among kids, teens, and young adults is more prevalent than we’d like to believe, it’s not an automatic path to a future heart attack or stroke. Pairing knowledge with a few simple lifestyle tweaks can reduce the risk and help to foster a healthier tomorrow.


References

  1. Kohli-Lynch CN, Bellows BK, Zhang Y, et al. Cost-effectiveness of lipid-lowering treatments in young adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2021;78(20):1954-64.
  2. High blood pressure in kids and teens. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023.
  3. What is atherosclerosis? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 2022.
  4. Sleeth CM, Peterson AL, Hokanson J. Pediatric dyslipidemia screening by pediatricians and family medicine physicians: Current practices and future directions. Pediatrics. 2020; 146 (1_MeetingAbstract): 636–637.
  5. Heart Disease and Stroke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022.
  1. Crippa G, Bergonzi M, Bravi E, et al. Effect of electronic cigarette smoking on blood pressure in hypertensive patients. Evaluation by non-invasive continuous ambulatory blood pressure measurement. Journal of Hypertension. 2018;36:e4.
  2. What is atherosclerosis? American Heart Association. 2020.
  1. Babaniamansour P, Mohammadi M, Babaniamansour S, et al. The relation between atherosclerosis plaque composition and plaque rupture. Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors. 2020;10(4):267-73.
  2. What is high blood pressure? American Heart Association. 2023.
  3. Maeda D, Dotare T, Matsue Y, et al. Blood pressure in heart failure management and prevention. Hypertension Research. 2023;46:817–33.
  4. Weldegiorgis M, Woodward M. The impact of hypertension on chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease is greater in men than women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Nephrology. 2020;21:506.
  5. Wang Z, Wang Y, Xiong J, et al. Causal effects of hypertension on risk of erectile dysfunction: A two-sample Mendelian randomization study. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. 2023;10:1121340.
  6. Modi P, Arsiwalla T. Hypertensive Retinopathy. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-.
  7. Reading the new blood pressure guidelines. American Heart Association. 2021.
  8.  Grundy SM, Stone NJ, Bailey AL, et al. 2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/ AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol: Executive Summary: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Journal of the American College of  Cardiology. 2019;73(24):3168-3209.
  9. Qu Y, et al. Ultra-processed food consumption and cardiovascular events risk. Presentation at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2023.
  10. Pant A, et al. Association of ultra-processed foods with cardiovascular disease and hypertension in Australian women. Presentation at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2023.
  11. Rauber F, Campagnolo PD, Hoffman DJ, et al. Consumption of ultra-processed food products and its effects on children’s lipid profiles: a longitudinal study. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Disease. 2015;25(1):116-22.
  12. Martínez-González MA, Gea A, Ruiz-Canela M. The Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular health. Circulation Research. 2019 Mar;124(5):779-798.
  13. Kelley GA, Kelley KS, Pate RR. Exercise and cardiovascular disease risk factors in children and adolescents with obesity: A systematic review with meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2021;16(4):485-510.
  14. Wlosinska M, Nilsson AC, Hlebowicz J, et al. The effect of aged garlic extract on the atherosclerotic process – a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies. 2020;20:132.
  15. Yeh YY, Liu L. Cholesterol-lowering effect of garlic extracts and organosulfur compounds: human and animal studies. Journal of Nutrition. 2001;131(3s):989S-93S.

This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.