Kimberly Garrison: Heart attacks can hit at any age

Posted: February 21, 2013

FORMER ATHLETE-turned-restaurant manager Stephanie Varela, 29, attributed her sweating, shortness of breath and slight chest pains to the stress of hard work and rushing around. Neither she nor the paramedics would realize she was having a heart attack.

It happened on a Saturday evening last September, the Philadelphia resident recalled recently. "I was on the phone trying to calm down an irate guest, and the minute I hung up, it felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I felt this stabbing pain in my shoulder that traveled down to my arm, elbow and finally to my fingers, which went numb. I felt like I was in a fog and going to pass out."

When the EMTs arrived, they put her on oxygen and said she was probably having a panic attack because she was "too young" to be having a heart attack. She was transported to Roxborough Hospital, and 90 minutes of tests later, Varela was diagnosed with a heart attack. She was transferred to Lankenau Hospital for surgery, which was successful, and released about a week later.

The exact cause of Varela's heart attack remains a mystery to her doctors, she said, adding that they suspect her slightly elevated cholesterol, extra pounds, smoking (though she'd quit a year before) and some poor lifestyle choices in her early 20s may have contributed.

According to local cardiologist Sanul Corrielus, "the process of heart disease can be accelerated at any step along the way," even in children and young adults.

In fact, Corrielus said heart disease is being seen more frequently in younger people "with the presence of identifiable risk factors. This is particularly true of recent years with the increase of childhood obesity and the advent of increased life stressors."

So the bottom line is, regardless of age and genetics, multiple lifestyle risk factors such as obesity, smoking, physical inactivity and high cholesterol may increase the likelihood of early atherosclerosis.

Graceful and smiling broadly, Varela recently told me, "Clearly, youth is on my side, but now I have to be very careful. I have to watch what I eat, sticking to low-sodium and heart-healthy meals. No more fried foods, cheese, salt.

"I can only exercise lightly about 30 minutes a day, and I still have to take [coronary artery disease drugs] and a baby aspirin daily. The good news is, I'm retiring clothing and ready for a new wardrobe."

Kimberly Garrison is a wellness coach and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia. Her column appears Wednesdays.

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