Heart disease prevention should be top of mind for men, even in their 20s.
By Holly Coletta
Heart attacks and other cardiac diseases come with a reputation of white-knuckled panic, something that strikes suddenly or slowly. The stark truth is that statistics justify the anxiety: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 600,000 people in the United States die of heart disease every year. Of that staggering number, more than half are men.
"Cardiac health problems are something people don't worry about until they get older," says Dr. Frank Tice, a cardiologist within the Mount Carmel Health System. "But in reality, the earlier prevention starts, the better."
To this end, we spoke with experts to gather information for each decade of a man's life, starting in his 20s. As with most medical matters, mastering a healthy lifestyle early on is the simplest, most cost-efficient and smartest thing a person can do.
As men enter their 20s, social interaction may come with an increase in eating on the run (and visits to fast-food restaurants), alcohol consumption and casual smoking. All of these things are proven to be detrimental to heart health later in life.
Dr. William Abraham, an Ohio State professor and cardiologist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, explains these lifestyle traits can lead to clogged arteries. Clogged arteries put men at risk for the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease, which often leads to heart attacks. Though problems may not manifest until later in life, it's a process that starts as early as the late teens or early 20s.
According to Michael Tempelhof, an OhioHealth cardiologist, the damage done by smoking is particular difficult to undo. It takes 10 years of complete smoking abstinence to negate the impact of picking up that first cigarette, he explains.
Medical experts agree primary prevention is key. This includes following a heart-healthy diet, maintaining a normal body weight, exercising regularly and a smoke-free lifestyle.
Knowing major risk factors - from genetics to high blood pressure and cholesterol - becomes important once men reach their 30s. And understanding family history is imperative.
"An individual with a family history of cardiovascular disease has a significant non-modifiable risk of suffering from a heart attack or stroke," Tempelhof says. "All Americans - healthy or otherwise - should be cognizant of their familial risk."
A man's risk for developing cardiac problems increases significantly if a first-degree male relative had heart disease before 65, Tice explains. But just because heart disease runs in the family, it does not mean development is imminent. Abraham adds that while a genetic history can't be changed, it can be thwarted.
"[This knowledge] should be a greater motivator to adopt a healthy lifestlye," he says.
Tempelhof says maintaining a healthy weight is also important for men at this age. If a man is 30 pounds overweight, his risk of developing a cardiovascular disease increases by an estimated 300 percent, he says.
"To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, Tempelhof suggests a Meriterranean diet including high-fiber foods and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.
"This is the only diet to have shown a benefit for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease," he says. "Numerous studies have demonstrated the diet's ability to reduce the risk of stroke, coronary artery disease, diabetes and periphery arterial vascular disease."
And, he adds: "It's easy to implement. These are palatable meals that are easy to make...You don't feel like you're dieting."
Blood pressure is another risk factor to which men should pay close attention at this age.
About one-third of men develop high blood pressure during their 40s, and high blood pressure is a major cause of cardiovascular disease.
As at-risk men reach 50, cardiovascular disease is likely to manifest - if it hasn't already. At this age, it's critical to continue a healthy lifestyle.
"The older you get, the more likely you are to develop vascular and coronary disease," Tice says, "And for men, the incidence goes up quite substantially after the age of 45."
Men should continue to practice prevention measures, Abraham says.
"As men get into their 50s and 60s, oftentimes we're moving toward secondary prevention," Abraham adds. "These are men tho have developed heart disease, and we want to prevent it from progressing into a heart attack. Or, if they have had a heart attack, we want to try and prevent a second [one]."
Secondary prevention includes medicinal treatments for heart disease. This could mean a daily dose of aspirin, a statin medication that will lower cholesterol, such as Lipitor, or a beta-blocker.
Stress relief during this age is also beneficial, although Abraham notes there is only a "loose association between stress and heart disease." Research shows severely stressful lifestyles can lead to heart damage that resembles a heart attack. Doctors at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center offer information or relaxation therapies, meditation techniques and yoga classes that can help manage stress.
It's also important for men in their 50s to remain in tune with their cardiovascular risk factors. Tice recommends using the Framingham Risk Score calculator, a widely used program that can, after examining numbers including age, cholesterol and blood pressure, estimate the risk factor for developing heart disease over the next decade.
Additionally, such places as OhioHealth's McConnell Heart Health Center offers a comprehensive corporate health evaluation, which is a full-body examination that specifically pays attention to heart and vascular health, Tempelhof says.
"If we're going to make a big impact in the future of preventing cardiovascular disease, it's by implementing a better primary prevention lifestyle," Templeton says.
Preventing heart disease and other cardiac problems doesn't need to mean endless intimidating medical tests and machinery. Hospitals around Columbus offer innovative ways to stay heart healthy.
Get Active | "You don't have to run a marathon to make significant strides in prevent cardiovascular disease," Dr. Michael Tempelhof says, OhioHealth partners with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for HOOFit, a walking program that pairs participants with physicians for a day of cardiovascular education, exploring the zoo and casual exercise.
Get Support | OSU Wexner Medical Center offers support groups such as Mended Hearts, which bring together people who are struggling with cardiac problems. The Wexner Medical center also offers clinical trials for those willing to participate in new treatments.
Get Better | Each of the three local hospital systems offers a cardiac rehabilitation program, which gives patients an extended treatment plan and the opportunity to work with a team of cardiac experts in their quest for recovery and prevention.