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woman with unexpected chest pains and heart issues in the office

The Things We’re Getting Wrong About Heart Disease

Reading time | 7 mins

Article written in April 2020 

Article updated in February 2022

In 2018, studies showed a distinct decline in cardiovascular mortality – that’s people dying of heart attacks. Great news, right?
But before we start celebrating, a newly worrisome problem has come to the surface. Heart attacks are increasing in adults under the age of 40, with many cases being in their 20s and 30s. In fact, 1 in 5 heart attack patients are 40 years old or younger. 
Over the last decade, there has been a 2% yearly increase of young adults being admitted to hospital with heart attack symptoms. The reasons behind the increase are varied. Diabetes, hypertension, substance abuse, and a family history of heart problems can all increase a person’s risk of heart disease.
However, when Kimby Jagnandan faced worrying heart-related symptoms of her own, her fears were dismissed. According to her healthcare team, 38-year-old Kimby was “too young” to be worried about her heart.
Less than a year later, Kimby was rushed to the ICU with a heart attack. After her hospital stay, she joined a cardiac rehabilitation program. She says:
“Sometimes, I wonder whether my heart attack could have been prevented if I'd been taken seriously and put on an appropriate treatment plan. We need to stop believing in these heart attack myths. Heart disease can happen at any age.”

***

Are you a young person living with cardiovascular disease (CVD)? How often have people been shocked you can have heart issues at your age? 

Many people can hardly believe that I survived a heart attack at 38. I even faced skepticism while in the hospital having my heart attack! 

Though my experience was pretty horrific, it made one thing very clear: it is so important we fight against the myths surrounding CVD and heart attacks. 

CVD doesn't happen when you become a certain age. Your body doesn't "save" this disease until you reach late middle age. Unfortunately, the idea that CVD is an "old person's ailment" is a common and harmful misconception. 

And, if believed for long enough, these misconceptions can have devastating consequences. 

"Too young" to have a heart attack

I was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) after a massive heart attack in 2014. 

Nurses and doctors began filing into my room to tell me how I was the "talk of the hospital."

No one could believe that a 38-year-old female had just had a heart attack! 

If I'm being honest... I couldn't either. I was reeling. Heart attacks only happened to older people, right? 

Wrong. 

A couple of months after my heart attack, my father took me to the hospital to sign up for cardiac rehabilitation. We were together in the waiting room when the nurse came out to talk to us. She went straight to my father and asked if he was the patient. 

The nurse was super embarrassed when he said no and gestured at me. Yes, my father and I share a last name, but she'd fallen into the ageism trap like so many others. 

And, at first, cardiac rehab only reinforced my idea that heart attacks only happened to older people. I was the youngest person in the program by far. The other patients looked at me as I entered the room, obviously wondering what I was doing there. I was young, female... Adding two and two together, they figured I must be in the wrong place. In other words, they did the math and came up with five. 

The experience left me feeling isolated and a little confused. Was cardiac rehab for younger people so uncommon? Or was the apparent social stigma right all along? 

Realizing I'm not alone

Another young person eventually joined my cardiac rehab program. He needed an aortic valve replacement for a congenital heart condition that doctors had been monitoring all his life.

It was good for the older patients to see that heart problems may exist in younger generations. Hopefully, it was educational for them. 

For me, it was reassuring to meet someone around my age with a heart condition. Another young man eventually joined who also needed a valve replacement. I felt reassured and validated with two people closer to my age in the group. It was time to change perceptions surrounding heart conditions. Anyone can be affected - young or old! 

Since then, I've met so many other people of a similar age to me who've battled heart disease. I feel like I'm part of a little club now. 

And you know what? None of us judge each other by our age because we know that heart disease doesn't just affect older people. 

Changing the perception of heart disease

The myth that heart issues only affect those beyond middle age is both alienating and dangerous. Worse, this myth is often perpetuated in some medical circles. 

Some friends told me they visited their doctors about suspected heart issues. Their concerns were immediately dismissed, told they were "too young" to be worrying about heart conditions. When they plowed on and described their symptoms, it was as if their doctors would ascribe any reason but heart disease. 

This makes me angry because it happened to me.

I had bilateral leg edema (swelling in both my ankles) in the year leading up to my heart attack. Leg swelling is a classic symptom of heart disease.

I visited a cardiologist, my primary care physician, and even a rheumatologist to determine the cause. They ran tests on my heart but eventually diagnosed me with arthritis. I pushed against this diagnosis as I knew it wasn't right. 

I told them about my family's history of heart disease. I reminded them I'd already been diagnosed with high cholesterol and high blood pressure - both risk factors for heart disease.

Then I moved on to more anecdotal evidence. I told the doctors how short of breath I became when climbing the stairs, to the point I always used the elevator whenever I could. This is yet another, more subtle, sign of heart disease. A person with good heart health should be able to climb 60 stairs in less than a minute without becoming incapacitated afterward. This wasn't me. 

Still, the doctors scrambled to reassure me that I was "too young" to consider CVD and that the problems weren't linked to my heart. I left their rooms without medication and with a false sense of trust. I wasn't a medical professional. If they saw nothing wrong, there must be nothing wrong. Was I exaggerating my symptoms? Did I want something to be wrong with me? 

Then, within a year of the "all-clear," I had a heart attack. And I haven't had any more instances of bilateral leg edema since getting treatment.

The truth about heart disease

Heart disease is nearly 5 times as common in people in their 60s than in their 30s and early 40s. But heart disease can happen to people of all ages.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 5 percent of Americans under 45, and about 12 percent of Americans between 45 and 64, have been diagnosed with heart disease.

People who have legitimate symptoms of a heart problem should not be dismissed because they're "too young." This myth means some patients miss out on treatment that can reduce the risk of a full-blown heart attack. 

Sometimes, I wonder whether my heart attack could have been prevented if I'd been taken seriously and put on an appropriate treatment plan. 20% of my heart was damaged. 

It's been seven years since my heart attack. I'm no longer in rehab, but I still have cardiovascular disease. I will be taking medication for my heart for the rest of my life. 

Since the heart attack, I've developed type 2 diabetes. I get regular checkups with the cardiologist who saved my life, but I now have a stent in my heart. I worry about it getting blocked and that I may have to get another one years down the road.

The takeaway 

Everybody (and every body) is different. 

I had a heart attack at 38 years young. We need to stop believing in these "heart attack myths." People afraid to get checked out need to stop worrying about any stigma.

Medical professionals, patients, friends, and family need to take heart disease symptoms seriously, no matter the person's age. 

Please help to make your loved ones aware that heart disease happens to young people, too. I'm living proof. 

For more information on managing heart disease, please reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

NPS-ALL-NP-00513 FEBRUARY 2022

References [Article Intro] 

Cleveland Clinic, 2019. Why are Heart Attacks on the Rise in Young People. [Online]
Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-are-heart-attacks-on-the-rise-in-young-people/ [Accessed 1 February 2022].

Mensah, G. A., 2018. Decline in Cardiovascular Mortality: Possible Causes and Implications. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5268076/ [Accessed 1 February 2022].

The American College of Cardiology, 2019. Heart attacks increasingly common in young adults. [Online] Available at: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-03-heart-increasingly-common-young-adults.html [Accessed 1 February 2022].