The trouble with being young is the feeling that you’re invincible. When your heart skips a few beats, or perhaps races faster than normal, or even aches while your palms become sweaty, you probably think you’re falling in love. It never occurs to you that you might be experiencing signs of a potential heart disease. How could it occur to you? You’re
young! You’re invincible!
But tell that to 35-year-old Ankita Sharma*, and you’ll realise youth is not the same as invincibility. After ignoring a recurring chest pain accompanied by breathlessness and exhaustion for almost a year, Sharma was diagnosed with a 99 per cent blockage in her right coronary artery. “I never believed that it could be a cardiac problem,” she says. “Even when I was admitted to the hospital and briefed about my condition, I became very emotional, refusing tests till my family convinced me to take everything step by step.”
Sharma finally went in for an angioplasty and subsequent angiographies, followed by weight and lifestyle management at VLCC.
Don’t lose heart
“In the last 15 years of my practice, I have seen a steady increase in cases of young heart patients,” says Dr TS Kler, head of the cardiology department at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute. “While the term coronary artery disease might sound intimidating, it is purely a lifestyle problem which can be monitored and controlled. Your personal choices have an impact on your heart.”
“Society is becoming increasingly unkind to youngsters, who are mostly overworked and underpaid,” says Dr Roopa Salwan, senior cardiologist at Max Hospital, Saket. “Heart diseases in young age groups are not acceptable and are largely preventable. Usually young patients find it hard to accept that they might have heart disease, and by the time they come around, they’ve missed out on the critical time for help.”
In India, on an average, heart disease strikes people in their fifties. (In America and Europe, it’s the seventies.) By 2020, the largest cause of death in India will be due to cardiovascular disease, says a 2002 report by the World Health Organization. When you do the math, you realise that most of the victims will be younger people.
While heart diseases are often categorised as the direct result of the modern lifestyle, that is far from the truth. The oldest case of chronic heart disease was found earlier this year in Egypt’s mummy of Nebiri. Dating back almost 3,500 years, the Egyptian chief of stables showed traces of blocked arteries in the brain and backed up pulmonary edema or fluid accumulation in the lungs. Scans of other dignitaries revealed the prevalence of artery blockages through generations of Egyptians – perhaps due to their sedentary lifestyle and fatty food.
“You’re never too young to have a blood test,” says Salwan. “You should know your numbers and have the ability to face them without presumptions. A lot of damage is being done out of sheer ignorance.”
What are you doing wrong?
The heart beats around 70 times a minute, or more than 2.5 billion times during an average lifetime, carrying oxygen and pumping blood through your body. Aside from genetics, most risk factors are lifestyle choices that can be altered and monitored as a measure of prevention.
To successfully do this, you must understand how your arteries function. If you were to lay out your blood vessels in a straight line, they would run almost 95,000 kms, pumping up to the equivalent of 7,500 litres of blood a day (even though it is recycling the same 4-5 litres over and over again).
The walls of these blood vessels have a certain amount of elasticity on the inside to take the pressure of this flow without bursting – something you know as blood pressure. When these walls start accumulating deposits, they narrow down, become less elastic and even rupture.
To stop the bleeding, the blood clots in the artery wall and hampers the flow to the heart and onwards. This clot might stay where it is and cause a heart attack or move on to the brain and cause a stroke. Either way, you lose.
As you enter your twenties, you start developing a ‘fatty streak’, the first sign of wear and tear in the wall of the artery. Everything that passes through your lips and nose has a direct effect on these sensitive arterial walls. Smoking cigarettes or sheesha is almost like setting fire to them and allowing them to play host to unwanted fatty deposits like sticky trans fats which go on to create that dreaded clot, with a 25 per cent increased chance if you’re a woman.
But because you’re young, you’re unlikely to pay much attention to lifestyle advice. Worse, even if you are diagnosed with a heart condition, you won’t share your experience with others.
Causes of heart Ailments
Fortunately, Kapil Gilani, who had a heart attack at the age of 29 (over 10 years ago) due to excessive smoking coupled with stress, does talk about it.
“Your life is in your hands,” he says. “I would tell you to be happy and stress-free, but above all to stop smoking.”
Gilani’s heart attack came out of the blue. One day, without warning, he felt a heaviness in the chest and massive sweating, following which the blood supply to his heart stopped due to a blockage in the artery. He underwent a procedure called Thrombosuction, where the clot is sucked out of the system.
Now smoke free and happy, Gilani strives towards a healthy lifestyle. He’s still on medication and swears by his routine check-ups.
Marijuana, the allegedly safe drug, is another threat, especially when it’s used for recreational purposes. Sure, it’s being legalised in many parts of the world, but it is not free from side effects. Marijuana works on the increase and decrease of the heart rate, but so far there are no studies on its long term effects.
One in five victims of a heart attack is a passive non-smoker or a person living in an area with high pollution. Perhaps some of these factors are out of your control, but if you monitor them, you may be able to help your body as it ages.
While obesity is a recognised cause of heart conditions, healthy young people who are anger-prone are more likely to wind up in the cardiac ward. So it’s best to opt for a Zen-like anger management strategy starting today.
Prevention is better than cure
But just as important is a genuine regard for your health. “People spend thousands of rupees on diamond earrings or make investments worth lakhs, but will never invest in health tests or regular check-ups to prevent any foreseeable damage,” says 30-year-old Deergha Shah Choudhary who, at the age of 26, developed a 100 per cent blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, one of the three main coronary arteries. She had no family history of cardiac diseases, blood pressure problems or obesity.
Choudhary couldn’t walk even short distances without taking breaks and facing breathlessness. Ultimately, in 2012, she had robotics surgery at Escorts in place of the conventional heart bypass. Later that year, she needed constant vigilance from cardiologists throughout her pregnancy.
“Older people get regular preventive health check-ups at hospitals but that’s not the case with youngsters,” says Vandana Luthra, founder of VLCC Healthcare. In Luthra’s experience, young people who go to medically approved lifestyle clinics for weight loss and body treatments generally discover latent heart ailments during the initial medical screening.
In most cases, symptoms can be as trivial as disturbed sleeping patterns, shortness of breath and heartburn, or as major as severe pain in the chest and a shooting pain in the left arm. “Women and youngsters show more atypical signs than men,” says Salwan. “They can range from gas, indigestion or discomfort in the back.” Women, typically, tend to ignore these signs.
The good news is that you can prevent heart problems by tweaking your lifestyle. For example, a sauna routine helps lower blood pressure by making the body lose its salts, something not possible in an air-conditioned environment.
Choudhary advises people to cut down their use of ghee. Cutting trans fats is another way to reduce risk, especially those found in cookies and baked products.
You need not run to the doctor for every sign of indigestion, but you must acknowledge that age has nothing to do with invincibility. Making informed choices and keeping a regular track of your health is the least you can do to maintain a happy heart. “Sleep one hour less and run one hour more,” says Salwan. Really, it’s as easy as it sounds.
* Name changed on request
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From HT Brunch, September 27
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