Developing heart disease as a young person doesn't come with a manual. Here, one person details their journey and shares lessons learned
A week ago, I had a mild heart attack. One minute I was scrolling through my phone, looking at pictures on Instagram, and reading tweets, and the next minute, I felt the same tight compression in my chest that spread everywhere and left me heaving as I picked up my phone and called my friend who was in the room next door with the bit of strength I had.
"Are you OK?", he asked after he had helped me, and I nodded.
The mild heart attacks always happened at a different time of the day, and I had got used to it, but that evening was different.
"I was now going to depend on my parents, on the people around me, and it wasn't something I was prepared for"
In 2020, I was a few weeks into my second year in the university during the pandemic when I visited home to see my parents in Littoral, Benin.
I spent a few weeks with them and decided to do a little house chore. In sweeping and mopping the house, I felt a tight compression in my chest, followed by my legs going weak, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, having a heart attack.
After my dad's effort to save me, I visited a cardiologist the next day and, after a series of tests, got diagnosed with Coronary artery disease (CAD). This diagnosis sent me spiraling, wondering what went wrong and why it had to happen. I was now going to depend on my parents, on the people around me, and it wasn't something I was prepared for.
A new kind of life
Getting a cardiovascular disease as a young person between the ages of 19 to 25 is not unheard of; however, uncommon as young people are generally considered to be a demographic protected from heart disease.
A 2019 study by the Havard Medical School published by Harvard Health Publishing shows that CAD is the most important cause of early heart attacks and deserves the most attention. Other reasons should also be considered. The study shows that about four per cent of heart attacks in young adults are triggered by inborn abnormalities of the coronary artery anatomy.
Five per cent can be attributed to blood clots originating elsewhere and are carried in the bloodstream to otherwise normal coronary arteries, where they block the artery. And in another five per cent, various disorders of the blood clotting system increase the risk of clot formation throughout the circulatory system, including in coronary arteries.
"To have cardiovascular disease as a young person, you need high cholesterol. Or it could be something undiagnosed that you were born with or something that runs in the family," Dr Tola Ladejobi, an electrophysiology fellow and instructor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, told me.
Dr Ladejobi added that heart disease is very broad, and the more common conditions have to do with high cholesterol, high salt, stress, and many other factors.
Like me, other young people living with CAD find it hard to cope because it comes with no manual.
For Jojo, 24, who was diagnosed two years ago, living with CAD and right ventricular hypertrophy is exhausting. "I can't remember the last time I didn't have chest pain. It slowed down my productivity for a year plus," she said. "It's only this year that I’ve started to handle it better by doing yoga and avoiding stress as much as possible."
"There's a few rules of thumb regarding heart disease," Dr Ladeboji said. "Reduce stress, exercise, eat a healthy diet; less fat and more fruits. Also, reduce salt intake because salt holds on to water and increases heart failure."
"I can't remember the last time I didn't have chest pain"
Like Jojo, living with CAD or any heart disease as a young person is hard. From dealing with people telling you how young you are to have a heart condition to your family becoming overprotective of you, and others becoming experts in heart issues.
"With the diagnosis, my family and friends were scared. Then it progressed to them trying to police everything I eat and drink. I tried to appreciate their care, but it was very irritating," Jojo added.
Prevention is better than cure
Dr Vanita Arora, Senior Consultant, Cardiac Electrophysiologist and Interventional Cardiologist, Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, told the Times of India that young people do not get any prior heart check-ups. "People start gymming without a pre-cardiac check-up, and then during gym, they do weight training, which increases the thickness of the heart, they do treadmill workout, cross-training. Some even take supplements which are not good and cause damage to the heart, leading to arrhythmia."
A preventive measure, Dr Arora mentioned, is "for young people to perform a cardiac check-up." She also added that visiting a cardiologist or a cardiac electrophysiologist is essential in cases where a person has a strong family history of cardiac ailments.
As the world is changing and capitalism takes over as more young people are doing all we can to survive in this world, there is no doubt that the level of stress we go through is a contributing factor. And things many of us do to relieve ourselves from stress (from eating diets not good for our health to self-medicating) contribute to this; as Dr Ladeboji stated, "stress is a contributing factor."
Read more: How can you treat heart failure?
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter