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A heart attack can occur at any age, but your risk increases as you get older. However, scientific evidence shows that the prevalence of heart attacks among younger people has been increasing over the last few decades.

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, happens when blood flow to the heart is partially or fully restricted. When the heart is unable to get the blood and oxygen it needs, it can’t pump properly. The longer the heart goes without enough blood and oxygen, the greater the damage to the heart muscle.

Heart attacks are medical emergencies, and early treatment is critical. If you think you or someone else is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 or local emergency services immediately.

We will often use “men” and “women” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with your heart attack risk. Your doctor can help you better understand how your specific circumstances will translate into heart attack risk factors and symptoms.

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As your age increases, so does your risk of a heart attack. According to the National Institute on Aging, this is caused in part by physical changes to your cardiovascular system, and your heart in particular.

There are several ways that your heart can change as you age.

  • Fatty deposits may build up. Over time, fatty deposits can build up on the walls of your arteries. This can cause narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your heart muscle. This is known as atherosclerosis.
  • Arteries may harden. As you age, your arteries can become stiffer and harder. Having stiffer, less flexible arteries can increase your risk of a heart attack, especially if you have fatty deposits in your arteries.
  • Heart walls may thicken. The walls of your heart might grow thicker as you get older. While this makes your heart a little bigger overall, it can decrease the volume of your heart’s interior chambers. This means that your heart can’t hold as much blood or gets stiffer, which can cause problems with relaxation.
  • Valves may work less effectively. Your heart has four valves that open and close to keep blood flowing in the right direction. Over time, these valves might thicken, stiffen, or become leaky. This makes it harder for your heart to control blood flow.
  • Electrical impulses may change. Your heart’s electrical impulses may also change as you age. This can lead to the development of an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is a heartbeat that’s too fast, too slow, or irregular.
  • Sensitivity to sodium may increase. Some people become more sensitive to sodium, or salt, as they get older. This can raise your blood pressure and increase your heart attack risk.

According to a 2018 report, the average age for a first heart attack is 65.6 years old for men and 72 years old for women.

It’s important to note that these averages don’t account for recurrent heart attacks. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) says that 1 in 5 people who’ve had a heart attack have another heart attack within the next 5 years.

Heart attacks can and do happen to people of all ages. And, according to a 2017 study, the average age for a first heart attack is trending downward.

According to a 2018 study, heart attacks among young people are on the rise, especially among young Black women.

A 2016 review suggested that the number one controllable risk factor for young people is smoking. A separate 2018 study states that substance abuse is greater among young people and is linked to an increased risk of heart attack.

However, smoking and substance abuse among younger people isn’t the sole cause of earlier heart attacks. It’s likely a combination of many different factors, especially risk factors that are becoming more common in younger people, such as:

Experts also think that preventive medical care and lifestyle changes are not being introduced early enough. Certain lifestyle factors, like an unhealthy diet, low levels of physical activity, and tobacco use, can have long-lasting effects on cardiovascular health.

Researchers believe that it’s important to establish healthier lifestyle choices by adolescence or early adulthood to lower the risk of a heart attack in later years.

In some instances, family history may be a strong risk factor for heart attacks in younger people.

Although heart attack symptoms can vary widely from one person to the next, some of the most common symptoms include:

While men tend to experience chest pain that feels more severe, women are often more likely to have chest pain that feels like tightness or pressure in the chest. However, some women don’t have any chest pain when they have a heart attack.

Another aspect that tends to be different for men versus women is that symptoms for men tend to come on quickly. With women, the symptoms tend to come on more gradually. Unusual or extreme fatigue is often one of the first warning signs for women, and it can start several days before a heart attack happens.

Get immediate emergency medical care

If you or someone around you experiences symptoms of a heart attack, call emergency services immediately. The sooner you can get emergency medical treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Besides getting older, there are many other risk factors that can increase your risk of a heart attack. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, but it’s still helpful to be aware of them.

According to the AHA, the major risk factors for a heart attack that can’t be changed include:

  • Your age. As we’ve discussed, as you get older, your heart attack risk increases.
  • Being male. Men are at a greater risk of a heart attack than premenopausal women. But the risk of a heart attack is the same for men and postmenopausal women. Men tend to have heart attacks at an earlier age. But, women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack.
  • Family history. If one of your parents had heart disease, you may be at a greater risk of heart disease too, which could lead to a heart attack. Family history can be a strong risk factor for heart attacks in younger people.

Although some risk factors can’t be changed, there are many other risk factors that you do have control over. These include:

There are many steps you can take to lower your risk of a heart attack. The earlier in your life you can make these changes, the greater the impact on your heart health.

  • Quit smoking, if you smoke. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage the function of your heart as well as the structure and function of your blood vessels. This can lead to atherosclerosis and greatly raise your risk of a heart attack. Quitting tobacco can boost the health of your heart, blood vessels, lungs, and all other organs, too.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk of a heart attack. If possible, do not allow smoking in your home or car.
  • Take steps to lower your cholesterol. Having elevated cholesterol levels, especially elevated LDL cholesterol, is a high risk factor for a heart attack. If your cholesterol is higher than it should be, talk with your doctor about the best treatment options for lowering your cholesterol.
  • Keep your blood pressure in check. If your blood pressure is high, it can cause changes to your heart that make it work less effectively. Medication and lifestyle changes can help manage your blood pressure. Talk with your doctor about what type of treatment is best for you.
  • Find healthy ways to reduce stress. Recent research has found that chronic or ongoing stress is a major risk factor for heart disease and a heart attack. If you often feel stressed, try to find stress management techniques that help you feel more relaxed.
  • Exercise regularly. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adults need a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week for optimum health. Try to move more and sit less throughout the day.
  • Maintain a moderate weight. According to the AHA, your waist circumference is an important indicator of heart attack risk. If you’re overweight or have obesity, consider talking with your doctor about healthy ways to lose weight.
  • Watch your alcohol consumption. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure and triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. It can also produce irregular heartbeats. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This is considered to be one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men.
  • Manage diabetes. If you have diabetes, proper diabetes management is crucial to help minimize your heart attack risk.

Although you can have a heart attack at any age, your heart attack risk does increase as you get older. Having a family history of heart disease and being male also increase your risk.

Although some risk factors can’t be changed, many other risk factors are within your control. This includes lifestyle choices like smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, not getting enough exercise, and drinking too much alcohol.

If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or other conditions that can increase your risk of a heart attack, talk with your doctor about the best course of treatment to help lower your risk of a heart attack.