Why are heart diseases growing among India’s youth?- The New Indian Express

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By Online Desk

A rapid change in lifestyle is putting India’s youth, including young women, at a much higher risk of heart disease, say experts.

The traditional belief that heart attacks and other heart-related diseases affect only older individuals is now being re-examined. Increasingly, they are affecting people between the ages of 30 and 40. Lack of awareness and several factors contribute to this health risk, including inactivity, depression, insomnia, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension in youths.

On World Heart Day today, the medical community is seeking to draw attention to this growing area of concern. It is urging everyone to take heart health seriously and prioritise preventive measures, pointing out that individuals can reduce their risk and lead healthier lives through lifestyle changes and early detection.

“In recent years, we have observed a worrisome shift in cardiovascular health, markedly different from two decades ago,” said Saritha Sekhar, Adult Cardiologist, Amrita Hospital, Kochi. “A rising number of younger individuals now experience multiple blockages in their blood supply,” she noted.

The biggest contributor to the upsurge in such cases is the changing lifestyle. While the modern lifestyle has brought remarkable advancements, it has also brought sedentary behaviours, poor dietary choices, and heightened stress levels.  The younger population is now more prone to unhealthy habits, such as excessive smoking, lack of physical activity, drinking, and eating processed and unhealthy food among others. These factors collectively contribute to the high heart risk. 

In its recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) underscored the grave repercussions of hypertension. The report shows an estimated 188.3 million adults aged 30-79 years live with hypertension in India.

No Longer A Male Disease

Besides affecting younger and younger people, heart disease is also now far more prevalent among females than it used to be.

Heart disease traditionally affected the genders differently. Men tended to develop heart disease earlier in life than women. By age 45, heart disease was more common in men. Women tended to develop heart disease 10-15 years later than men, around ages 55-65. This was because estrogen was thought to have a protective effect on the heart in premenopausal women. After menopause, women’s risk increases. Testosterone may contribute to higher risk in men.

Another reason was the different lifestyles between the two genders. Men tended to have higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, poor diet and stress, which boosted heart disease risk.

“While we previously believed women were protected from heart disease during menopause, this is no longer the case,” Dr Saritha Sekhar said. She said a variety of conditions, ranging from hypertension, diabetes and thyroid disease are making women more prone to heart disease. 

“These factors, combined with the obesity epidemic and sedentary lifestyles, contribute to heart disease in younger individuals. Although the disease’s nature is similar in both genders, the evolving landscape underscores the growing vulnerability of young females to heart disease and early heart attacks,” she said.

Mental Health Angle

Another factor that is seen as a major contributor to the increase in heart disease — particularly among non-traditional groups — is depression and poor mental health.

In this competitive and fast-paced world, young individuals often face tight deadlines, making them ignore their mental health, and subsequently resort to unhealthy eating habits to cope with stress. Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which, over time, can damage the arteries and elevate blood pressure.

“Depression, often overlooked, significantly increases the risk of heart diseases, especially conditions like heart attacks and blockages,” said Dr. Rajesh Thachathodiyl, Senior Interventional Cardiologist, Professor and head of Adult Cardiology, Amrita Hospital, Kochi.

He said social taboos around discussions on mental health have made the problem worse. It is not unheard of for sufferers to be told to ‘get over themselves’ in so many words.

“Reluctance to seek help for mental health problems jeopardizes heart health. Recognizing depression as a critical risk factor and dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health discussions is crucial,” he pointed out.

Genetic Factors 

One of the underestimated contributors to heart disease is genetics. While there is little one can do about this, medical experts suggest risk assessment and intervention, incorporating medication and lifestyle adjustments to mitigate the impact.

“We observe numerous young patients, including athletes, with heart disease linked to strong genetic factors, such as atherosclerotic disease that often leads to heart attacks and myocardial infarctions, particularly in families with a history of it,” said Dr Hisham Ahamed, Associate Professor and Consultant Cardiologist, Amrita Hospital.

While lifestyle factors and other comorbidities play a significant role in predisposing one to heart disease, individuals with a strong family history of heart disease should maintain heightened vigilance and take proactive measures, he added.

“Given the hereditary component of heart disease risk factors, it is imperative to proactively undergo preventive assessments and screenings to identify and address potential risks, thereby prioritizing heart health to mitigate the impact of family history on overall well-being,” he added.

Health experts advocate adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle which involves focusing on nourishing foods, eliminating tobacco use, and making physical activity a daily priority. Regular health screenings, including blood pressure, cholesterol, lipids, and mental health check-ups, are crucial for the early detection and management of heart disease risk factors. With escalating risks there is an urgent need to make youth aware of underlying conditions that might spike and result in heart attack and failure, hence they should go for regular checkups and make lifestyle modifications as preventive steps, health experts noted. 

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