Early Signs of Heart Disease in Young

ByMelissa Schorr

B O S T O N, July 24, 2000 -- Drop the challupa. While you’re at it, drop that Big Mac and Double Whopper as well.

A new study examining the cadavers of 760 teenagers and young people found early signs of blocked coronary arteries caused by cholesterol buildup, suggesting that preventing future heart disease is “a pediatric problem,” researchers announced today in the journal Circulation.

“The bottom line is that long-range prevention of coronary artery disease has got to begin in childhood, or at least adolescence,” says senior researcher Dr. Henry McGill, senior scientist emeritus, at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas.

The study examined the arteries of young people who died of other causes, such as suicide, homicides, and accidents.

One-fifth of the young men aged 30 to 34 already had advanced plaques, or deposits of fat, inside their coronary artery, pointing the way towards future heart attacks and strokes. Males were more than twice as likely to have the plaques than women of the same age range.

The biggest risk factors for a clogged artery were found to be obesity and a high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called “bad” cholesterol which forms deposits on artery walls. Those with LDL levels above 160 milligrams per deciliter were 2 ½ times more likely to have one of these advanced plaques.

Other risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and having a low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as the “good” cholesterol, also put people at a slightly higher risk of artery blockage.

This research follows on the heels of a study that came out only last week which found that young men in their 20s and 30s with high cholesterol are 2 to 3½ times more likely to die of heart disease, and have four to nine less years of life expectancy than men with healthier cholesterol levels.

Both pieces of research suggest that even people in their early 20s should be getting their cholesterol tested, as is currently recommended by the National Cholesterol Education Project, says Dr. Peter Libby, Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Even twenty-year-olds should know their cholesterol numbers and get high levels under control,” Libby says. “It is much better to nip this disease in the bud than to treat heart attack and stroke after they happen.”

Currently, cholesterol screenings, which serve as a warning when overall readings pass above 200 milligrams per deciliter, are often mainly a concern for middle-aged adults.

High cholesterol can be treated by diet adjustments and cholesterol-lowering medications, such as a class of drugs called “statins,” which interfere with cholesterol synthesis, and newer, over-the-counter products, such as Benecol and Take Control, that contain plant sterols, which interfere with the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines.

But doctors say before popping a pill, Americans should make lifestyle changes first, such as focusing on exercise and diet.

The American Heart Association recommends keeping daily intake of cholesterol below 300 milligrams, and avoiding junk foods and fried foods.

The findings of this study suggest that no age is too young to start, and that monitoring and counseling teenagers about their eating habits may be warranted.

“It’s a hard sell, teenagers think they’re immortal,” McGill notes. “I still have a grandson, who, despite all our family discussions, still orders the double cheeseburger with extra bacon and fries.”

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