Atherosclerosis can develop rapidly in young adults
Atherosclerosis – better known as ‘hardening of the arteries’ – is a slow, progressive disease that can begin during childhood. In some people, it can begin to develop more rapidly in their 30s and 40s, narrowing the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body.
And in some people, atherosclerosis doesn’t become dangerous until they reach their 50s or 60s – especially if it’s left untreated.
About 650,000 people die from heart disease in the United States each year – that’s 1 in 4 deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Atherosclerosis – a major contributor to heart disease – often has no symptoms until plaque breaks down, or until plaque buildup is severe enough to block blood flow.
Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of cholesterol plaque on the walls of the arteries, causing a blockage in blood flow. And atherosclerosis is a common cause of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease – all conditions or events that fall under the category of heart disease.
In addition to hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and high cholesterol, risk factors for heart disease include smoking, a family history of heart disease, age, lack of exercise, and being overweight.
Symptoms of a heart attack
Common symptoms of a heart attack include:
Chest pain or pressure or a strange feeling in the chest
Shortness of breath
Nausea or vomiting
Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper abdomen or in one or both shoulders or arms
Dizziness or sudden weakness
Fast or irregular heartbeat
Women may also experience the following symptoms and should also seek medical help immediately:
Pain in the arm (especially the left arm), back, neck, abdomen, or scapulae
Nausea and vomiting
An overwhelming and unusual fatigue or tiredness, sometimes accompanied by shortness of breath
Dizziness or sweating
Hardening of the arteries: Atherosclerosis can develop rapidly in young adults
Half of all heart attacks are ‘silent’
An estimated half of heart attacks have symptoms that can be mistaken for other less serious disorders, increasing a person’s risk of death. These are more commonly referred to as “silent heart attacks” because they do not have the traditional signs of a heart event, such as extreme pain or pressure in the chest; shooting pain in the arm, neck, or jaw – or even shortness of breath.
The best way to avoid cardiac events and treat heart disease is to have regular checkups with your primary care physician to determine if you have risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, says Dean Heller, MD, cardiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.
“It’s important to keep up with those readings that determine your risk for coronary artery disease,” says Dr. Heller. “If you know you are at high risk, you are less likely to ignore the less obvious signs of a heart attack.”
An electrocardiogram (EKG) or echocardiogram can determine if there is any damage to the heart muscle. Another method is a blood test to detect the molecular fingerprint of troponin T, a protein released by injured heart cells. The troponin T test is used in emergency departments for patients who complain of symptoms of a heart attack.
Coronary calcium measurement allows doctors to determine your chances of having a heart attack in the next five to 10 years. This involves a non-invasive computed tomography (CT) scan that measures any calcium buildup on the walls of the heart’s blood vessels.
Curtis Hamburg, M.D., a cardiologist and director of echocardiography at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, explains that calcium is often present when plaque blocking the arteries begins to form.
“Historically, to determine a person’s risk, we relied on a 10-year vascular risk model that factors blood pressure and cholesterol numbers that is based on the percentage of a similarly numbered population that would experience a cardiac event.” said Dr. Hamburg. “If the calculated risk were high, we would most likely implement lifestyle changes and prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs.”
You are a candidate for coronary calcium testing if you are between the ages of 40 to 65 and have any of the following risk factors: smoking; family history of heart disease; obesity; high cholesterol; high pressure; and diabetes.