FRIDAY, April 26 (HealthScoutNews) -- Few risk factors for having a heart attack or stroke are as high as having a close relative who's experienced such an event. Yet judging by the lifestyle habits of young adults in just that position, many are not concerned or even aware of that risk.
In tracking the health and lifestyles of nearly 4,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 35 over the course of five years, researchers with the University of Pittsburgh say they'd expected to find that those with a family stroke and heart attack history would be taking some measures to avoid the same fate.
The researchers instead were surprised to find the opposite: In looking at behaviors and patterns such as smoking, levels of physical activity, weight or blood pressure, there were no noticeable differences between those with a family history and those without.
In fact, the study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found people with family histories were sometimes even more likely to have undesirable decreases in their blood HDL -- or so-called "good" -- cholesterol levels and increasing levels of obesity over the course of the study.
Study author Kevin E. Kip, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, says the trends may represent young adults inheriting not only the genetic risk factors for heart attack and stroke, but the behavioral risk factors as well.
"These may be people who may have been exposed to, say, more smoking in the home, and of course if you live in a household where people are smoking and you're a smoker, it's not going to be very easy for you to quit," Kip says.
Then there's the basic issue of what the researchers call "perceived susceptibility," or the youthful notion of being invincible.
"They don't see these risks as being potentially imminent, and if you warn people that this or that behavior may affect them 15 or 20 years down the line, it's very hard for the message to hit home," Kip says.
"Either that, or they may take the opposite approach -- they recognize the increased risk, consider themselves to be genetically doomed anyway, and say, 'What's the point in taking care of myself?'" he adds.
Contrary to being "genetically doomed," there is much that can be done to reduce the increased odds for people with a family history of stroke or heart attack, says Dr. Larry Goldstein, the director of cerebral vascular disease at Duke University Medical Center.
"If you are at an elevated risk, it becomes even more important to take various good health precautions all of us are told about," Goldstein says.
"Your increased risk of stroke from cigarette smoking, for instance, goes back down to that of the general population about four to five years after quitting. Avoiding excess alcohol consumption can greatly reduce risk of stroke, as can getting enough exercise, and eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. All of those things together can significantly reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease and probably cancer as well," he says.
The findings underscore the need for physicians to take a greater role in making younger adults aware of the potential risk factors. Kip says that there's likely no better time to drive that message home than when a family member does experience a heart attack or stroke -- even though such an event is traumatic.
"When such a crisis occurs, the physician may really have more impact in counseling the family on their own risks -- especially the young adults -- because that's when they may be most receptive to the warnings," he says.
What To Do
Learn about the risk factors that can make you vulnerable to heart disease or stroke at the American Heart Association.
Here is a comprehensive list of stroke risk factors from the American Stroke Association.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has information in its Cardiovascular Health Program.
SOURCES: Kevin E. Kip, Ph.D., assistant professor, epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Pittsburgh; Larry Goldstein, M.D., director, cerebral vascular disease, and associate professor, medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; May 2002 American Journal of Preventive Medicine ~STRO~~HATT~~HRTS~