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Heart attacks target new victims: young adults

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 3/17/2019 Alexi Cohan
a man standing in front of a window: JOHNSTON RI. - MARCH 13: Jeff Barnes, who suffered a heart attack prior to the age of 40 on March 13, 2019 in Johnston, RI.    (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald) © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media JOHNSTON RI. - MARCH 13: Jeff Barnes, who suffered a heart attack prior to the age of 40 on March 13, 2019 in Johnston, RI. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Jeff Barnes was 27 when he had a heart attack.

Barnes, of Johnston, R.I., was in excellent physical condition when he took a rigorous firefighter agility test two years ago. But halfway through it he had a heart attack.

He passed the test, but his case pointed to a disturbing trend. Barnes is among a rising number of young heart attack survivors, with a new study out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital showing that more heart attacks are striking those under age 40.

The proportion of people under 40 having a heart attack has risen 2 percent each year for the last 10 years, according to the study.

Substance abuse, including cocaine and marijuana use, may be contributing to the trend as nearly 18 percent of the youngest patients reported marijuana use and 9.3 percent reported cocaine use.

Other risk factors include diabetes, obesity and smoking, according to Dr. Ron Blankstein, senior author of the study and preventive cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

But Barnes, an army veteran, is an exception with no history of smoking, drug use and no known heredity links to heart disease.

Barnes started to feel chest pain during the physically exhausting agility test, but dismissed the symptoms as signs of fatigue.

The test included six events in which Barnes had to carry a 50-pound pack while performing tasks such as running up flights of stairs, pulling a heavy fire hose or carrying a 150-pound dummy.

“I was exhausted, I had chest pain but I just thought it was from overexerting myself,” said Barnes. “I would have never thought I was having a heart attack so young.”

Blankstein said it is common for young people not to recognize heart attack symptoms, noting “an element of shock” in patients.

“When young individuals experience symptoms, sometimes a heart attack may not be on their radar, and they may be more likely to delay seeking medical care,” said Blankstein.

After the pain worsened, Barnes finally went to the hospital. “I was really worried because at the time I was still trying to catch my breath.

“It was almost as if someone was sitting on top of me. I was really scared,” said Barnes, who didn’t believe doctors at first when they told him he had a heart attack.

Barnes stayed in the hospital for six days while he recovered from a stent implantation.

“The hospital stay was difficult. I had never been in the hospital for that period of time … it was almost depressing,” said Barnes. After returning home, he immediately turned his focus to eating low-sodium foods and exercising frequently.

Blankstein said controlling underlying risk factors and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart attack.

However, Blankstein said risk factors can sometimes go unnoticed. “I think most young people perceive themselves as being healthy even when they are not,” he said.

Barnes said he was motivated to get his health back on track after his hospital stay. “I really wanted to recover as quickly as possible … It took a mental toll as much as physical toll,” he said.

Barnes’ recovery took about a year, and now he is feeling healthy again — but not without an ever-present worry that it could happen again.

“I feel like after having that happen it’s something that keeps me pushing forward,” said Barnes. “It’s really important to enjoy life while you can.”

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