Contrary to Popular Belief, Young People May Develop Clogged Arteries, New Study Says

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It’s well-known that clogged arteries — in which blood flow is constricted by build-ups of coronary artery calcium (CAC) or plaque — is a risk factor for heart disease. But doctors and the general public alike tend to assume that CAC is likely to become an issue only in middle age.

A new study by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, however, has found that even younger adults — formerly thought to be largely free from CAC — might be at risk.

The findings were reported in a paper called “Association of Coronary Artery Calcium With Long-term, Cause-Specific Mortality Among Young Adults,” published on the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network. The retrospective study assessed data from 22,346 individuals aged 30 to 49. 

The subjects were not drawn from the general population, but were those with what researchers call “clinical indications for CAC testing” — primarily a strong family history of cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol. More than a third of those tested — 34.4% — were found to have calcified artery plaque. During a follow-up period of 12-plus years, those with significant plaque had coronary disease death rates that were ten times higher than those of subjects with no CAC.

Women in the age group were found to have lower incidences of CAC than men, but those who did have elevated plaque had similar high rates of death from coronary disease. More women than men have strokes every year in the U.S., and should pay attention to these 50 health tips every woman should know.

The takeaways from the study, according to one of its authors, Dr. Michael D. Miedema, are twofold: First, that adopting a healthy lifestyle early in life is important, since the process of accumulating arterial plaque can begin at a young age. “You shouldn’t wait until you’re 50 to start taking good care of yourself,” he said.

Secondly, Dr. Miedema stressed that there’s no need for every young adult to take a CAC test — which involves a small amount of radiation, similar to that of a mammogram, and costs about $100 — but it should be considered for those with cardiovascular risk factors.

In the United States, heart disease is still the top killer, leading to 610,000 deaths a year, or one in every four fatalities. It’s a chronic problem and doctors say they see more young patients developing the condition — these are America’s so-called heart disease capitals