Average age of a heart attack is younger than you might think, so here are warning signs of a heart attack and what you need to know

Heart attacks can happen younger than you might think. Here’s more on the average age of heart attack, and signs one is happening.

Getting older definitely increases your risk for a heart attack, but that doesn’t mean younger adults should ignore concerning symptoms.

While the majority of first heart attacks happen around age 65 for men and 72 for women, there has been an increase in heart attacks in people under age 40, according to the American College of Cardiology, a professional organization of heart doctors. The chances of having a heart attack at a younger age depend on many factors. Symptoms of a heart attack vary between men and women and can be subtle enough in younger people that they go unnoticed.

Here we will talk about what a heart attack is, your risks for having one at any age and signs you shouldn’t ignore.

Understanding heart attacks

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction (my-oh-CARD-ee-ull in-FARK-shun), happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked or restricted. Less blood means less oxygen, and that leads to parts of the heart muscle dying.

“That is why we say time is muscle,” said Gang Cheng, M.D.,  a cardiologist with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “The sooner you can see a health care provider if you think you are having a heart attack, the better.”

There are some causes of chest pain that are not due to heart attack, including acid reflux, muscle strain and anxiety.

“We encourage people to be seen for chest pain, no matter their age, especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms of a heart attack,” Dr. Cheng said.

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Heart attack age myths

You might think anyone who has a heart … can have a heart attack. That may be true only in the most technical sense. Heart attacks can happen to anyone, but statistically they happen to people of a certain age. Data from the American Heart Association shows the average age of a person at the time of their first heart attack in the United States is 65.5 years for males and 72 for females.

However, those numbers are changing. An ACC article from 2019 notes that the incidence of heart attacks is rising in those under 40.

“The idea that you have to be a certain age to have a heart attack is not exactly true,” Dr. Cheng said. “There are cases of heart attack in adults of all ages. It depends on many factors, but it is possible to have a heart attack at what we would consider a young age — in one’s 40s or even younger, for example.”

Risk factors contributing to early onset heart attacks

A study in 2018 looked at heart attacks in people younger than age 45. Results of that study showed the incidence of a heart attack per 100,000 people was:

  • Ages 20 to 29: 2.1
  • Ages 30 to 39: 16.9
  • Ages 40 to 49: 97.6

The authors noted that, compared with older adults, those who experienced a heart attack under the age of 45 were more likely to:

  • Be male
  • Smoke
  • Have a higher body weight
  • Have a family history of premature heart attacks

Other risk factors for heart attack in younger people include:

  • Substance abuse, especially cocaine, or excessive alcohol use
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Diabetes
  • Poor diet, without vegetables, whole grains and lean meats

What age can you have a heart attack?  

In general, most heart attacks happen to people around age 65. The younger you are, the less likely you are to have a heart attack, but it is not impossible, especially if you have certain risk factors.

Reducing the risk of heart attack in young people

Although deaths from cardiac arrest in young people are not common, you still can take extra steps to help reduce your chances of having a heart attack as a younger adult, especially if you have a family history or other risk factors:

  • Schedule annual checkups with your doctor, especially if you have a family history of heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Have annual sports physicals if you are very active in sports.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Stop smoking.

It is important to know the warning signs of a heart attack and what to do if you or someone you know has these symptoms.

If you have many of the risk factors for heart attack, you should talk to your health care provider. Also, know the warning signs of a heart attack and see a doctor if you have sudden symptoms of pain, tightness or pressure. The sooner you are seen for heart attack symptoms, the better your outcomes are likely to be.

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