A little known health trend that could save millions of lives is that the older you get, the more likely you are to get heart attacks, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Our findings suggest that people in their late twenties and early thirties have a higher risk of heart attack than people in middle age and older,” says lead author John Fritsch, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan Health System.
“So if you are young and healthy and have heart health issues, it may be important to address them early,” he says.
The findings of the study, which examined data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are significant, Fritsche says.
The researchers found that people aged 60 and older had an average of three heart attacks every year.
This is about three times the rate of people aged 20 to 29, according the study.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
The researchers were surprised by the results.
“I was surprised,” Fritsh says.
“Because if you look at the rates of heart attacks that are being reported in older adults, that’s very, very low.”
Fritsch and his co-authors looked at the data for heart attacks and death by heart failure among 4,600 people aged 50 to 74, and their mortality rates for each of the four main causes of death: coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and nonfatal heart attacks.
The authors found that the risk of dying from a heart attack increased with age, and this increased with the number of years of education in the person’s high school, college or professional career.
The most recent year of education, for example, was about 18 years of age in the study group.
“There is this tendency to think that the younger you get the worse you’re at heart disease,” Fritzsch says.
But the research is consistent with a growing body of evidence that says older adults have a greater risk of developing heart disease than younger adults.
In a previous study, for instance, researchers from the University at Buffalo looked at data from NHANES and found that heart attack rates among people in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were roughly double those of people in midlife.
That finding was consistent with what we know about heart disease risk.
But another study from the American Heart Association looked at mortality rates in older and middle-aged people and found a much lower risk of death from heart attacks among people of similar age and educational attainment.
“It’s not as if you have a big gap between older and younger people,” Foulds says.
Fritsche hopes the findings of his study will help prevent people from developing heart attacks in the first place.
“This finding provides the opportunity to consider interventions that will lower cardiovascular risk, which is important for the older population,” he adds.
This story was produced by The Washington Post’s Kaiser Health News.
Kaiser HealthNews is an editorially independent program of Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, a nonprofit health plan that delivers health care to low- and moderate-income Americans.