catshila/ShutterstockFélicité Tomlinson was many things: Aspiring fashion designer, Instagram star, sister of One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson. But on March 13, 2019, the 18 year old’s story was cut short, almost before it began, when she was found dead in her London apartment, having suffered a “heart attack/cardiac arrest,” her reps told Hollywood Life.
She was reported to have been in excellent health and had even announced in January that she’d given up alcohol and tobacco. So how does such a young person die so suddenly of cardiac arrest? Sadly, this is a question with no satisfactory answer, says Robert Segal, MD, cardiologist and cofounder of Labfinder.com.
“Men over the age of 40, women over the age of 50, smokers, people with a genetic predisposition or family history of heart disease, people suffering from obesity and a lack of physical activity, and people with high cholesterol and high blood pressure are at highest risk,” he explains. “But the truth is that everyone is at risk for heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks.”
We don’t talk about the epidemic of heart disease nearly enough, Dr. Segal says. Sensational deaths may grab more headlines but in America, heart disease accounted for one in every four deaths last year, according to the Centers For Disease Control, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women, with over 80 percent of heart attacks being deadly.
Heart attacks in young people, like the one that killed Tomlinson, are rare but they are on the rise: People under 50 years old account for 32 percent of heart attack victims, according to a new study published in Circulation. The group that experienced the sharpest increase? Young women. Learn about the 5 heart conditions that are more common in women.
“Cardiac disease is sometimes considered an old man’s disease, but the trajectory of heart attacks among young people is going the wrong way[…] It’s actually going up for young women,” says Sameer Arora, MD, cardiologist and the study’s lead author. “This is concerning[…] It tells us we need to focus more attention on this population.” Here are 9 physical and emotional ways heart disease is different for women.
One possible reason for the rise in fatal heart attacks in young people is a lack of understanding about personal risk factors, Dr. Segal says. Everyone, regardless of age, should know if any first-degree relatives (mom, dad, brothers, and sisters) have or have had heart disease, he says. It’s also important to know the age at which your relative had a heart attack; if your father was 55 years of age or younger or your mother was 65 years or younger, then your risk goes way up, he adds. In addition, these 13 common infections can raise your risk of heart disease.
Another way to assess your risk is to ask for a test to determine your Coronary Calcium Score, Dr. Segal says. It’s a non-invasive CT scan that checks for calcium deposits in your arteries. “It can raise a red flag for potential problems and give advance notice for things like ‘a widow maker,’ an incredibly lethal type of heart attack,” he explains. If you already know you are at high risk, you can benefit from routine screenings with a cardiologist, he adds.
How do you know if you’re having a heart attack? Unfortunately, some heart attacks show virtually no symptoms, as appears to have been the case in Tomlinson’s death. Chest pain is the most common sign, but a significant amount of people say they didn’t experience this before or during their heart attack. Other signs to be on alert for: Jaw pain or a toothache, especially with an accompanying headache; abnormal sweating, especially if you’re not moving or in a hot environment; abdominal or back pain, particularly in women; nausea and lightheadedness; feeling physically exhausted though you have not been moving; and shortness of breath for no reason, Dr. Segal says. Women especially should watch for these 8 sneaky heart attack signs they could be ignoring.
There is some good news when it comes to heart disease; a lot of the risk factors are under your control. Even if you have a higher risk due to genetics, you can substantially mitigate that by making healthy lifestyle choices like eating a healthy diet, exercising daily, quitting smoking, reducing stress, and limiting alcohol intake, Dr. Segal says. You’ll also want to learn the 15 heart attack prevention tips every woman must know.