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Young at Heart

Posted Mar 01 2008 12:00am

Cardiac health is no longer just an issue for those over 40

Story by Lindsay Stein // Photography by Samantha Colt & Heidi Bungart

Stay active and eat healthy. Those are “doctor’s orders” for Syracuse University senior John Davis, who was born with a heart murmur, a slight irregularity in blood flow to the heart. Davis says he knows his limits when it comes to his health. “When I was young, my doctor told me not to inhale anything but air,” Davis says.

Each day, the heart beats about 100,000 times, pumps over 2,000 gallons of blood, and brings oxygen to all of the body’s organs. It is one of the most important parts of your body, but exams, parties, and homework often leave students with zero time to think about their vital organ. Heart disease is on the rise in this country, so college students should — now more than ever — begin thinking about caring for their hearts.

“We [the American Heart Association] want to focus on telling young adults that now is the time to take your heart health seriously,” says Mary Kate Hartmann, communications director for the Syracuse Region of the AHA.

Many college students engage in activities that could increase their risk for heart disease on a regular basis, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, and eating poorly. One of the most common is binge drinking. Alcohol consumption in large amounts or on a regular basis is bad for the body in general. According to the AHA Web site, drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure, and lead to stroke. It can also cause irregular heart beats. Too much alcohol includes drinking more than one to two drinks per day.

Another risk for heart disease seen among college students is smoking tobacco. Statistically, people who smoke increase their risk for cardiovascular disease two to four times more than people who do not. Also, smokers with pre-existing heart conditions increase their risk of severe coronary problems and even death, according to the AHA.

Students who do not drink or smoke are not necessarily safe with respect to cardiovascular conditions. Two more factors that can increase the risk for heart problems are unhealthy eating and being overly stressed. This is an image seen very often on college campuses, especially on a Friday at 1 a.m. Students go to Kimmel or Marshall Street and consume all types of greasy, fattening foods. Good eating habits are very important for health because high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity all can cause heart problems. The AHA says that being overweight or having high blood pressure causes the heart to strain and work harder. When young adults gain a significant amount of weight, they become even more susceptible to cardiovascular problems, the AHA Web site states.

With homework, exams, and work, it is almost impossible for students not to stress out, but it is important to try to relax. Stress can increase the risk of heart conditions because it causes anxiety, making the heart beat at a quicker pace. The AHA also mentions that people who have high levels of stress are more likely to engage in smoking, drinking, and eating poorly. On top of that, a 2004 study in the “Journal of the American Heart Association” showed that the higher blood pressure young adults have, the bigger the impact on their mental functioning.

There are hundreds of different types of heart diseases and conditions, some of which are hereditary; some are controllable, and some are not. Cardiomyopathy, a common heart disease that has a variety of causes, including consuming large quantities of alcohol, enlarges the heart and weakens its muscles, says Maureen Thompson, associate professor in the health and wellness department at SU. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, fainting, dizziness, and lightheadedness. This condition is usually treated with medication, but it can hinder people from participating in sports or other exerting activities.

Atherosclerosis is generally caused by high cholesterol levels and makes blood vessels in the heart narrow. Thompson says that it “nearly universally begins in early adolescence,” but it can be prevented and treated by maintaining low levels of cholesterol. Symptoms include chest pain and other symptoms commonly associated with heart attacks, according to If gone untreated, heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, and insensitivity to heat and cold can follow, the Web site states.

Knowing the risks of heart disease is only half of the battle. The two easiest ways to avoid problems are avoiding smoking and binge drinking, but if that is out of the question, there are other ways as well. Maintaining a healthy diet is crucial when it comes to cardiovascular care. Eating fruits and vegetables, paying attention to serving sizes, and lowering junk-food consumption are all good ways to maintain a healthy heart, Hartmann says. She also says that exercise is important for the heart; even walking an extra 30 minutes a day is beneficial. On top of diet and exercise, Hartmann explains the importance of knowing your genetic background and if there is a history of heart disease in the family. If a person is at a higher risk for a heart condition later in life, he or she might be more apt to take better care of his or her heart.
“Just changing a few small things in your lifestyle can really improve your heart’s health,” Hartmann says.

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