Cardiac problems, including heart attacks, are no longer limited to older adults. With changing lifestyles, dietary habits and increased stress levels, young adults are also susceptible. On this World Heart Day (Sept. 29), let's understand the risk factors associated with cardiac issues in young adults and listen to expert opinions for prevention.

Cardiovascular disease, a common term that includes a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels, was typically associated with middle-aged and older adulthood. However, studies show an increasing prevalence of cardiovascular diseases such as rheumatic heart disease and atherosclerosis in younger adults, especially people in their 20s.

What are the risk factors?

"In recent years, there has been a concerning rise in cardiac issues among young adults. While the precise causes may vary among individuals, some factors are common," Narges Feizabadi, a board-certified cardiovascular nurse practitioner from California, told Medical Daily.

"Atherosclerosis, hypertension and obesity are some of the risk factors. Atherosclerosis or the buildup of plaque in arteries can occur at a younger age due to poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles. While high blood pressure puts strain on the heart and arteries, excess body weight can lead to various risk factors, including diabetes and sleep apnea, which contribute to heart problems. High levels of stress, often related to work or lifestyle, excessive alcohol consumption, substance abuse, inadequate sleep and tobacco use can have a detrimental impact on heart health. Family history of heart disease and chronic conditions such as diabetes or high cholesterol can also raise the risk," she said.

According to a National Institute Of Health (NIH) report that studied heart disease risk in young adults, cholesterol levels decreased from 40.5% to 36.1% in young adults between 2009 and 2020. However, the number of young adults with diabetes increased by 1%, and the obesity rates increased by more than 8% during the period.

Dr. Arash Bereliani, a board-certified cardiologist and medical director at California's Beverly Hills Institute For Cardiology and Preventive Medicine noted that an overdose of prescription medications can also lead to a vast range of heart diseases among young adults.

"The use of illicit drugs and heavy alcohol causes a vast array of heart problems, including arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, and the worst being sudden cardiac death. Overdose on prescription medications and excessive energy drinks are also some of the factors that raise the risk. Be careful when taking prescription medications for anxiety, depression and ADHD. Excessive intake of energy drinks, especially when mixed with alcohol, can lead to arrhythmias and severe hypertension," he added.

Know early symptoms

Dr. Bereliani observed that certain hereditary cardiac conditions – the cardiac abnormalities people are born with – might sometimes go unrecognized and manifest in young adulthood as heart failure. He recommends people to watch out for symptoms such as palpitation (fast or racing heartbeat), shortness of breath, chest discomfort, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting (passing out without any reason) and consult a cardiologist. Getting a yearly checkup also helps.

Steps to prevent cardiac issues

Ensuring a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and unsaturated fats and limiting salt, sugar and processed foods is the key to heart health, according to Feizabadi. She also recommends getting regular exercise, managing stress through meditation and yoga and limiting alcohol and tobacco use.

The lifestyle changes made during young adulthood not only shield individuals from heart diseases at that stage but also have long-term benefits for heart health as they age, Dr. Bereliani said.

"Staying healthy in young adulthood is crucial for the prevention of heart attack and heart failure when someone reaches his/her 40s and older. Regular exercise, a good diet, avoiding smoking, preventing obesity and a good lifestyle in young adulthood is the key to preventing heart attack or stroke later in life."