Why do young people have heart attacks?

Dr. Holly S. Andersen, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

As in older adults, heart disease in young people can lead to stroke and heart attacks. Heart disease is generally the result of plaque clogging our arteries—or arthrosclerosis. We’re finding that plaque can develop as early as teenagers and pre-teens. It takes a while for it to build up. The great thing is, there is so much you can do to prevent heart disease. The earlier you start the better chance for it to not be a problem in your life. Everything that you do that is good for your heart is good for the rest of you.

Stress is also a risk factor for heart disease, and can lead to heart attacks. The millennials (people reaching young adulthood around the year 2000) are the ones that are the most stressed in our country right now. Actually, women say they have more stress than men. It is important to actively try to reduce your everyday level of stress. Nevertheless, stress is hard to measure. We can't put an actual number on it. But, what we’re finding is that reducing stress really translates into a healthier body and a healthier life.

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.

About 700,000 Americans have a heart attack every year. While most people who have a heart attack are middle-aged adults or older, people in their 20s and 30s can experience them, too. In recent times, I've noticed in clinical practice that the age of those having a heart attack (or myocardial infarction) has become younger – specifically, less than 50 years old. The main reason for this is that more people have diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension) at a younger age. There’s a significant increase in obesity as well. This trend is followed by an increased use of tobacco use in certain populations. The result is an increased numbers of heart attacks. I’ve seen several people in their early 40s who have had a heart attack. 

While sedentary lifestyles and poor habits play a big role in your risk for heart attack, your genes also have something to do with your chances of having premature coronary disease.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

Continue Learning about Heart Attack

What You Need to Know About Heart Attacks
What You Need to Know About Heart Attacks
Heart attacks are believed to come on suddenly with no warning. And while that is often the case, the disease that causes heart attacks is often years...
Read More
How should I prepare if I'm at risk for a heart attack?
If you are at high risk for a heart attack, it is a good idea to develop an action plan with you...
More Answers
6 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers
6 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers6 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers6 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers6 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers
Learn how the weather, road rage or the big game can spell trouble for your ticker.
Start Slideshow
What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women?
What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women?

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.