Many Young Adults Unaware They're Developing Heart Disease

THURSDAY Oct. 27, 2011 -- A new study warns that many young adults have undetected thickening of the arteries -- or atherosclerosis -- which can lead to heart disease, stroke and death.

Researchers examined 84 young men and 84 young women, aged 18 to 35, with no known cardiovascular disease or risk factors such as diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol or family history of premature heart disease.

Even though the participants had none of these traditional risk factors for atherosclerosis, many had other signs of the condition such as greater waist circumference and dangerous visceral fat covering the internal organs within the abdomen and chest, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada study.

The findings, presented Oct. 25 at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver, verify earlier research that found that as many as 80 percent of young Americans killed in war or in car accidents had premature and hidden (subclinical) atherosclerosis.

"The proportion of young, apparently healthy adults who are presumably 'the picture of health' who already have atherosclerosis is staggering," study author Dr. Eric Larose, an interventional cardiologist and an assistant professor at Laval University in Canada, said in a foundation news release.

The findings show that measures of visceral fat are greater predictors of atherosclerosis than simply checking body mass index (BMI), a measurement that takes into account height and weight. People with higher amounts of visceral fat have more atherosclerosis -- even if they're young and apparently healthy -- and can benefit from preventive changes in lifestyle.

"We know obesity is a bad thing but we're dropping the ball on a large proportion of young adults who don't meet traditional measures of obesity such as weight and BMI," Larose said.

He noted that assessing visceral fat levels is easy to do in a doctor's office. It's just a matter of measuring waist circumference.

"My message to young adults is that you are not superhuman, you're not immune to risk factors," Dr. Beth Abramson, a foundation spokesperson, said in the news release. "It's important to manage your risk factors at all ages. Lifestyle will eventually catch up with you. You are never too young to prevent heart disease."

Research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about atherosclerosis.

Posted: October 2011


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