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Why do young people have heart attacks?

You might think of heart disease as only affecting people in middle age and later, but very rarely infants, children and younger adults can have heart attacks.

In adults in the United States, most heart attacks are caused by narrowing of arteries and blood clots related to the build-up of a fatty substance called plaque. In part, plaque is made up of dietary cholesterol, so coronary artery disease leading to a heart attack is a progressive condition - damage accumulates over time based upon a person’s diet and exercise patterns. Children are too young to have accumulated much damage, so what accounts for rare heart attacks in the young?

Common causes of heart attacks in young people include Kawasaki disease, familial hypercholesterolemia and congenital heart defects. The cause of Kawasaki disease is not well understood by the medical community, but the condition is known to lead to inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body, including the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. Aneurysms (bulges in weakened portions of artery walls) can form in the coronary arteries and rupture, leading to heart attack-causing blood clots.

Familial hypercholesterolemia is a genetic condition that hinders the body’s ability to eliminate cholesterol from the bloodstream. Patients who inherit this condition may develop atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) much faster than people without the disorder, and can have heart attacks in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Congenital heart defects are structural abnormalities in the heart that are present at birth. Serious heart defects (depending on the nature of the defect) can raise chances of a blood clot forming or can eventually lead to heart failure.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.