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Published on June 29, 2016

Tips on Avoiding an Early Heart Attack

If a man in his 40s has a heart attack, it will likely come with greater speed and intensity than if he were decades older. But if he doesn’t ignore the warning signs and receives immediate emergency medical treatment, his chances of surviving and escaping major damage are excellent.

“If we get to them and get them early, because they are young and don’t have a lot of medical problems, then they do very well,” says Dr. Tom Watson, who directs Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s cardiovascular service line.

It’s just as important for young people to recognize that many mid-life heart attacks can be delayed or potentially prevented by addressing key issues early on, Dr. Watson says.

Stop Smoking, or Better Yet, Don’t Start

Cigarette smoke leads to lung damage, but Dr. Watson stresses that it’s the nicotine in cigarettes – as well as e-cigarettes and cigars – that really ups the threat of heart attacks. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict, which results in high blood pressure. It also damages the lining of blood vessels.

“Smoking is one of the factors that’s very prevalent in people who have heart attacks at a young age.” Quitting smoking can be tough, but well worth it. “When you stop, your risk of a heart attack starts to regress very quickly,” Dr. Watson says. Because of nicotine’s addictive nature, he cautions young people not to get sucked into the smoking habit.

Keep Your Weight Down

Like smoking, being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor for heart disease and heart attack, but a “very reversible one,” Dr. Watson says. With proactive changes in diet and exercise, even a small amount of weight loss (between 5 or 10 percent of your current weight) can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Get Your Cholesterol Checked

High levels of “bad” cholesterol in your blood can lead to plaques and buildup in arteries. You might be more at risk for cholesterol complications because of weight, diet or low levels of activity. But some people have a tendency for high cholesterol because of inherited factors even if they stay thin and have healthy habits. That’s why Dr. Watson encourages everyone to have cholesterol checks, starting in their 20s.

“It’s always important to at least know where you stand,” he says. “We have good drugs that are really effective for lowering cholesterol.” That includes statin medications and some alternatives that have become more readily available within the past year.

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