Heart attacks are striking more Americans in their 20s and 30s, new study finds

A new study has identified an alarming trend in American adults under 40.

Heart attacks are striking more and more people in their 20s and 30s in the United States, researchers found in a 16-year study of just over 2,000 younger adults — and the proportion of people under 40 suffering from them has been ticking up 2 percent each year for a decade, according to an American College of Cardiology news release on the newly-released findings.

“It used to be incredibly rare to see anyone under age 40 come in with a heart attack — and some of these people are now in their 20s and early 30s,” Dr. Ron Blankstein, the study’s senior author and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. “Based on what we are seeing, it seems that we are moving in the wrong direction.”

That trend comes even as heart attack rates across the board have been falling, thanks to less smoking and the increasing use of statins, researchers said. Blankstein’s research will be presented at an annual American College of Cardiology event later this month.

Researchers said it’s the first study to compare young sufferers of heart attacks (those between 40 and 50) with very young heart attack sufferers, who are under 40. The study found that one in five people under 50 who have heart attacks are 40 or younger, the news release said.

Data showed those over 40 and those under 40 “were at equal risk of dying post-heart attack,” according to the news release.

Usually age is a very strong predictor of cardiovascular events in every study,” Blankstein said, according to Inverse, a science news site. “This suggests that despite being 10 years younger, they have excess risk relative to their age.”

Researchers concluded that their findings show a need for “particular attention to substance abuse among those who are under the age of 40” and suffer heart attacks. That’s because the study found that the youngest heart attack sufferers more commonly reported using marijuana (17.9 percent) and cocaine (9.3 percent), though those same people’s alcohol use rates were lower than the older heart attack patients, according to the news release.

Other, more traditional heart attack risks — diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure — were found at similar rates in the those over and under 40, researchers said.

When younger people survive heart attacks, their health outcomes afterward tend to worsen, researchers warned.

“Even if you’re in your 20s or 30s, once you’ve had a heart attack, you’re at risk for more cardiovascular events and you have just as much risk as someone who may be older than you,” Blankstein said. “It’s really important for us to understand why people are actually having heart attacks at a younger age, when there is even more productive life lost.”

But researchers cautioned that “data on risk factors and outcomes among very young adults” who have heart attacks is still very limited.

“It all comes back to prevention,” Blankstein said, adding that the “vast majority” of heart attacks could be avoided “with earlier detection of the disease and aggressive lifestyle changes and management of other risk factors.”

So what are the best ways to prevent heart attacks?

Blankstein recommended steering clear of tobacco, exercising often, eating healthy foods and losing weight if need be. It’s also important to keep blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risk in check — and marijuana and cocaine use should also be avoided, he said, because “they’re not necessarily good for your heart.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.