A new study is pointing out the risk of atherosclerosis in young adults.

Atherosclerosis, the buildup of fat in the walls of arteries, is usually thought to be a disorder for older people but a new study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation found that the disease affects a large number of young men and women.

"The proportion of young, apparently healthy adults who are presumably 'the picture of health' who already have atherosclerosis is staggering," says Dr. Eric Larose, an interventional cardiologist at the Institut universitaire de Cardiologie et de Pneumologie de Québec and an assistant professor at Université Laval.

Atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, puts blood flow at risk and can eventually lead to heart disease, stroke, or even death.

Atherosclerosis, caused by high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol damage can cause cardiovascular disease, which is the number 1 cause of deaths in America.

The study took 168 young adults, ages 18 to 35, half male and half female, who had no known cardiovascular disease or risk factors premature heart disease, family history, diabetes, smoking, high blood cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

The research team took each individual’s complete body measurements, including height, weight, body-mass index and waist circumference.

They also measured, through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), various body fat deposits including subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin that you can measure with calipers) as well as fat within and around the abdomen and chest including the amount of intra-abdominal or visceral fat. Ultimately, they measured atherosclerosis volumes of the carotid arteries by MRI, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada said in a release.

The researchers found that although a large proportion of subjects didn't have traditional risk factors for atherosclerosis, they did have discrete signs, which include greater waist circumference, and visceral fat covering the internal organs within the chest and abdomen.

Researchers say that visceral fat is difficult to detect because it surrounds the organs deep inside the body, unlike the fat under our skin than can be easily detected in the mirror or with a pinch of the fingers.

"We know obesity is a bad thing," says Dr. Larose "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 says that people with greater visceral fat will have greater atherosclerosis, even if they are young and apparently healthy and could benefit from preventative lifestyle measures.

He adds that despite having normal weight and BMI, young adults with greater visceral fat have greater atherosclerosis burden, which leaves them at a greater long term risk for clinical events including heart attack and stroke.

"We were encouraged to find that in this young and apparently healthy population, an easy way to measure risk in the doctor's office is through waist circumference," he said. Measured with a simple tailors ribbon, which was thought to be almost as precise as an MRI, an enlarged waist circumference was predictive of increased visceral adiposity and of premature atherosclerosis.

“These results may improve our ability to identify early individuals in need of more robust preventive support to slow the progression of their atherosclerosis,” the authors wrote.

"Someone in this country dies from heart disease or stroke every seven minutes," said Heart and Stroke Foundation’s spokesperson, Dr. Beth Abramson.

"The good news is that heart disease and stroke are largely preventable by undertaking heart healthy behavior."

She says that many of us have risk factors for heart disease and stroke, even if they aren't immediately evident, and it is important to start early in preventing disease.

"My message to young adults is that you are not superhuman, you're not immune to risk factors," says Abramson.

"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."

Abramson advises all to follow a healthy diet, be physically active, know and control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy weight, be tobacco-free, reduce stress, manage diabetes and limit alcohol consumption.

"You can think of it as a ticking time bomb inside your body that might explode later in life," says she says.

"There is a lot you can do to defuse the explosion."