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Trouble starts early

( -- You're young and you're invincible.

You can have that bag of nachos, half-a-pizza and a six-pack of beer and nothing will happen to you. Only middle-aged men have heart attacks and chest pains. Not you.

Sorry. It's not just your father's heart disease anymore.

Heart researchers now say that those same risk factors that cause heart disease in older men -- high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking, to name just a few -- start doing their damage when men are young. Some experts say as early as age 18, if not earlier.

In one of the largest and longest studies of its type, researchers at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee spent 20 years looking at the heart disease risk factors of 11,016 men ages of 18 and 39 and 8,955 men ages 40 to 59.

Heart Disease Risk Factors the Same, Young and Old

What they found was that those same risk factors for heart disease in older men can be used to predict future risk of disease and death from coronary causes in younger men. Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that these common coronary risk factors, when seen in young men, "have a powerful effect on long-term risk for death from coronary disease."

This means it is never too early to start checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and to quit smoking, or never start.

The research is published in the current issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers say coronary heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, and the American Heart Association reports that 949,619 people died in the United States in 1998 as a result of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

Lots of Heart Disease Preventable

Other recent studies confirm that arteries begin to clog as early as age 18, and some investigators have found that as many as 19 percent of men in their early 30s have clogged coronary arteries. What makes these numbers not only staggering but also tragic, the researchers say, is that many of these risk factors can be modified or even prevented. Much of what leads to heart disease is the result of lifestyle choices that people themselves can modify -- diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, rest, depression.

So the next time your gut tells you double-cheese burger with fries and shake, look to your brain to remember your heart.

(c) 2001

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