The real reason heart attacks kill the young

Maybe you’ve heard stories about athletes who suddenly drop dead from cardiac arrest. Sadly, it happens — and when it does, it gets a lot of attention. Because it’s always shocking when the heart of someone so young and healthy just quits.

It’s enough to scare an out-of-shape person of any age away from high-intensity exercise. But I’m here to tell you that avoiding exercise is the last thing you want to do — especially if you’re still relatively young. And here’s why.

According to a new study, sudden cardiac death is far more likely to happen in young people who are obese than in young people who are athletes…

The study looked at 186 sudden cardiac arrests that occurred out of the hospital among 5- to 34-year olds in Portland, Oregon. Of these, 26 cases — 14 percent — were triggered by sports. (Gym, running, cycling, team sports, hiking, rock climbing, swimming… you get the picture.)

But the other 86 percent were not associated with these activities. So what gives?

Well, for one thing, 40 percent of these young people were obese, and 22 percent were overweight. The rate of diabetes reached nearly 10 percent — with 15 percent and 25 percent rates of high blood pressure and smoking, respectively.

Ultimately, three in five of these young people already had at least one classic heart risk factor.

What’s worse, a solid third of the young, obese patients had full-blown coronary artery disease. Which is doubly disheartening given how preventable this condition is.

It’s also important to note that only about 30 percent of these patients had experienced any warning signs — like angina, palpitations, or dizziness. (This stands in stark contrast to older people, who suffer symptoms like this leading up to cardiac arrest roughly half the time.)

Frankly, this is terrifying. And yet, we never hear about this group of younger people.  We only hear about the athletes who once again, according to this study, account for less than 15 percent of these tragedies.

All of this saddens me incredibly. But what saddens me the most is our continued inaction as a nation in the face of this slow-motion train wreck. We just can’t seem to stop this epidemic — and, in fact, these numbers just keep getting worse.

What is it going to take? How bad does it have to get before we finally understand — for both ourselves and our children — that simple behaviors like eating right and exercising cannot be taken for granted?

And that it’s never too early to take a proactive stance in disease prevention?

Oh, wait — that’s right. I said prevent disease. Who would make any money from that?