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When you picture a heart attack, what comes to mind? For many, the image is of an older adult, often an older man, clutching his chest and coughing as he falls to the floor or hunches over himself while sitting in a chair. That imagery is so common because movies and TV shows often depict a character experiencing a heart attack in that exact way.

Hollywood, pop culture, and general heart-attack lore have done a good job of making it seem like heart attacks are an older person’s issue, especially an older man’s issue. And it is true that heart attacks affect men in the way mentioned above. But that’s not the whole story regarding heart disease in America. Heart disease and heart attacks affect women just as frequently as they do men, and the age of those who may develop heart disease is becoming younger and younger.

Heart Disease Facts

The following are recent stats regarding heart disease and heart attacks in the US:

  • Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US and has been for more than a century.
  • The total number of heart attacks in the US is on the decline, dropping 60% since the 1950s.
  • The average age of a first heart attack in a man is 65.
  • The average age of a first heart attack in a woman is 72.
  • One out of five heart attack patients are younger than 40 years old.

That last stat is alarming, considering that up until recently, heart attacks predominantly affected those 40 and older.

Why Is Heart Disease on the Rise in Younger People?

It’s true that the older you get, the higher your risk becomes of developing heart disease or experiencing a heart attack. However, age is not the only consideration—there are a number of factors at play when it comes to heart disease.

Factors that also affect young people include:


The more body weight a person carries, the harder their organs, especially their heart, have to work to keep up function and production. The heart must maintain a steady rhythm as it receives blood in and sends blood out. Over time, the extra work the heart has to do to maintain regular function overwhelms the organ, weakening it and leaving the person susceptible to developing heart disease and experiencing a heart attack.

What does obesity have to do with young people? The rate of obesity among younger adults continues to rise in the US. In a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2023, researchers discovered that the rate of obesity in Americans 20-44 increased from 33% in 2009 to 41% in 2020. With more younger people reaching levels of obesity, the risk of developing heart problems also increases.


Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease. When a patient has high blood pressure, it causes damage to their heart in several ways:

  • Artery Damage – High blood pressure causes the arteries to become less flexible, which then leads to less blood flow to the heart.
  • Plaque Buildup – With high blood pressure, plaque can build up on the walls of your arteries, blocking blood flow and leaving you at a greater risk for blood clots.
  • Function Disruption – High blood pressure causes the heart to work harder to pump blood out to the body. This can put strain on the left ventricle, specifically, and cause it to thicken and enlarge.

What does hypertension have to do with young people? There are several risk factors that can increase a young person’s chance of developing hypertension, including:

  • Developing obesity
  • Being overweight
  • Consuming too much alcohol too frequently
  • Smoking
  • Taking certain medications


Diabetes is another major factor that can lead to heart disease and is one that is often compounded with hypertension or obesity (although, that is not always the case).

Diabetes is heart-harmful, primarily because of the high blood sugar levels it causes. High blood sugar works to damage blood vessels as well as the nerves connected to the heart, increasing your risk of developing heart disease. Plus, patients with diabetes also tend to experience high blood pressure and higher cholesterol, additional risk factors for heart disease.

What does diabetes have to do with young people? Just like obesity and hypertension, diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, is on the rise among younger people in the US. In fact, the increase in type 2 diabetes among younger people is heavily connected to the rise in childhood and youth obesity.

Poor diets and lack of exercise can lead to excessive weight gain, which can then lead to the body developing a resistance to insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels. If a young person’s body is not able to regulate these levels, they can develop type 2 diabetes and a number of complications, including heart disease.

Smoking and Vaping

Smoking and vaping are HUGE contributors to the development of heart disease. Nicotine and the chemicals in a cigarette or smoking product wreak havoc on the heart, arteries, and lungs. And while it is smokeless, vaping has been observed to raise blood pressure, accelerate heartbeats, and add unnecessary strain to the heart, wearing it down faster.

One positive is that consumption of smoking tobacco products has decreased significantly in the past few decades—according to the American Heart Association, while more than 40% smoked in the mid-60s, only about 11% of the US population smokes tobacco products today.

What does smoking and vaping have to do with young people? Even though smoking products and tobacco use is on the decline, young people still do smoke, and vaping is definitely on the rise, especially among younger people. With the negative effects this habit has on the heart, young people who do partake in smoking or vaping increase their risk of developing heart disease.

Substance Abuse

Some substances are inherently dangerous to the body, including alcohol (in excess) and illicit drugs, like cocaine. These substances put unnecessary strain on the heart (as well as other organs). The effects these drugs can have on the heart include:

  • Elevated heartbeat
  • Tightened blood vessels
  • Increased blood pressure

All of these and more are directly associated with heart attacks and the development of heart disease.

What does substance abuse have to do with young people? It’s not uncommon for younger people to consume too much alcohol and maybe even take a drug or two that they are not supposed to. In addition to certain drugs being against the law to consume, they are extremely dangerous and harmful to your health. And for those 21 or older, house parties with lots of alcohol flowing or nights out drinking can really take its toll, even on young people’s hearts.

What Can I Do to Protect My Heart From Developing Heart Disease?

If you’re a young person at risk of developing heart disease or developing the factors that can lead to heart disease, there are several things you can do to change your direction and protect yourself:

Get Moving

Exercise and overall physical activity are great first steps to helping strengthen and support your heart. Intentional exercise or movement for at least 30 minutes every day can do wonders for your heart and body.

Whether you start walking, take up running, do yoga, try Pilates, join a sports team, or hit the gym, your heart will benefit.

Plus, exercise helps protect against obesity, which in turn can help lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Improve Your Diet

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: your diet has one of the greatest effects on the health of your heart and your body. There’s no way around it; what you eat either harms or supports your body’s health.

Nutrition is a complex issue that can vary from person to person—one diet might work well for one person but not be suitable for another—but the fact remains that the healthier your food choices are, the healthier your body and heart will be.

The simplest way to approach a change in your diet is to start steering clear of foods that are low in nutrients and too high in sodium, refined sugar, refined flours, and saturated and trans fats. Instead, start eating natural, whole foods. Reach for single-ingredient options or meals that are made up of single ingredients. As an example, you can avoid a storebought muffin that’s filled with harmful ingredients by reaching for an apple and some natural nut butter (two single ingredients paired together).

Stop Smoking, Vaping, and Consuming the Bad Stuff

If you have a smoking or vaping habit, consume too much alcohol, or use illicit drugs, stop. We know it’s not as easy as that sometimes, especially with a smoking habit or possibly a drug or alcohol addiction. But the sooner you can put the vices down and adopt healthier habits, the better off you and your heart be!

If you are struggling to quit your tobacco use, check out these resources:

If you are struggling to quit vaping, text DITCHVAPE to 88709. This number connects to This is Quitting, a first-of-its-kind program designed to help people quit vaping for good.

If you are struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, also called the National Referral Routing Service:

  • 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • TTY: 1-800-487-4889

The cardiologists at Middle Georgia Heart want to share the importance of taking care of yourself at a young age to boost your health and avoid heart disease.

Our heart doctors want to help educate all patients, including our younger patients, in improving their heart health. If you fear you are at risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a heart attack, schedule an appointment with our team today! 478-207-5224.


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