For years, heart disease was seen as primarily an older person’s disease. But that’s changing, with more and more children engaging in sedentary screen time instead of playing outside, eating more junk food and suffering from higher rates of obesity. Researchers have even found evidence of the first signs of plaque buildup in a fetus’ coronary arteries.
“When we say things like it’s never too early and it’s never too late to start taking care of your heart, we mean it,” says Pamela Marcovitz, M.D., medical director of the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center at Beaumont.
“Some part of heart disease we have to remember is congenital, but by far the greatest health care crisis has to do with atherosclerotic plaque, which leads to heart disease and leads to heart attack.”
Here’s a guide to heart health issues you should be aware of throughout life:
Heart Health in Your 20s
Health care policy experts often refer to this age group as the “young invincibles,” but Dr. Marcovitz believes it’s important for people at this age to get a health screening. It should include a check of your blood pressure, measure your Body Mass Index and get a fasting blood sample to measure cholesterol and glucose levels.
Dr. Marcovitz also believes this is a good time to establish healthy life habits, like avoiding smoking and getting regular exercise - at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity (the equivalent of a brisk walk) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. And keep away from fast food and processed snacks.
Heart Health in Your 30s
Exercise and health eating remain important at every age: Mostly fruits and vegetables, lean proteins like beans, fish and poultry, limited quantities of red meats, plenty of whole grains, nuts and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils.
By your 30s, you should start paying closer attention to your family history of heart disease. If you have a brother or father who had a heart attack or bypass surgery by age 55, or a sister or mother with a major heart event by 65, your own risk is doubled. “Certainly there is a genetic component to this, but we do think that the environmental factors are huge,” Dr. Marcovitz says.
With your career gaining steam, it’s also important to start paying attention to stress and ways to lessen it. “This is all about damage to the artery wall and how to prevent it,” Dr. Marcovitz says.
Heart Health in Your 40s
Diabetes becomes more prevalent among people in their 40s, though it’s also creeping up in children because of poor diet and sedentary lifestyles, Dr. Marcovitz says. So meal preparation becomes more important, as does adhering to medication regimens, especially for things like blood pressure and cholesterol.
Stress-reduction activities like yoga, meditation or even regular exercise can help lower your blood pressure. And if you aren’t already seeing a doctor for a check-up once a year, start doing so now.
Heart Health in Your 50s
When you’re in your 20s, you can usually get away with a poor diet. Not so as you age, as eating well becomes more important the older you get. Cut back on red meat if you eat too much of it, and pay attention to heart attack symptoms like chest pressure or pain in the jaw, neck or left shoulder; heartburn; fatigue; and shortness of breath. Even flu-like symptoms can mask heart problems.
Heart Health in Your 60s
By now it’s time to get a vascular screening test. It measures your fasting cholesterol and hemoglobin A1c, an important measure for diabetes; examines your carotid arteries for plaque and velocity of blood; checks the aorta for aneurysms; and looks at arteries in the legs for normal blood flow.
By your 60s, managing your weight becomes even more important. And you might also want to consider a calcium scoring test, which scans the heart.
Heart Health in Your 70s and Beyond
The most important thing in your golden years, Dr. Marcovitz says, is to stay active. “When you talk to people whose brains are intact and their hearts are intact at the age of 90, a lot of these people are lifelong exercisers. But I do want to emphasize it’s never too late to start a lifestyle of exercising.”
Exercise can even reverse the effects of atherosclerosis, the plaque that clogs arteries and limits blood supply. “It cannot be done in a pill,” Dr. Marcovitz says. “You have to just buckle down and do the work.”