What It’s Like To Have a Heart Attack Young

Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, can strike at any age.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. There are several different types of cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary artery disease, arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm), and heart attack.

heart attack is a medical emergency that happens when blood flow reduces or cuts off completely. For example, heart attacks can happen when the arteries that supply the heart with blood become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, or other substances. According to the American Heart Association, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States.

Symptoms typically seen with a heart attack can also occur with other cardiovascular conditions, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, or pericarditis. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.

Learn about what cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and similar conditions, can look like in your 20s and 30s and ways to lower your risk.

Can You Have a Heart Attack in Your 20s or 30s?

While it's true that the risk of having a heart attack increases as you age, young people are not immune to them. Heart attacks can happen at any age, typically due to the following:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Unhealthy lifestyle choices
  • Certain genetic conditions

Half of all people in the United States have at least one of the top three risk factors, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Those conditions lead to cardiovascular disease and occur at younger ages. Obesity, for instance, occurs in roughly one in six children ages 2–19 years old.

Heart attack symptoms may include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Discomfort in your arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach

Women are more likely to experience symptoms that aren't typically associated with heart attacks, like shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. One study published in 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that many young women who survived heart attacks never experienced any chest pain.

Cardiovascular Disease in Your 20s

Sometimes, heart attack symptoms can resemble other cardiovascular diseases. For example, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy and lightheaded
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Passing out
  • Irregular or quick heartbeat

Eve Walker was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in her late 20s. The symptoms she experienced at that time were similar to heart attack symptoms, and a full cardiac workup was necessary to differentiate the two and make the correct diagnosis. Here's her story.

Eve Walker, 44, Had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy at Age 28

I was 12 when my sister—we called her Sugar—suddenly died at a party. She was 16. 

There wasn't a complete autopsy, but the early findings pointed to heart disease—something I never learned until I was an adult. My family never talked about the incident. For years, we quietly continued.

Sixteen years later, I started experiencing heart disease symptoms, too. I didn't recognize them at the time. I first noticed that I couldn't walk up an incline without feeling short of breath. I couldn't understand it. I was a healthy weight and exercised regularly. 

I went to my healthcare provider and said, "I think I have adult asthma." They ran tests—which came back negative. I left thinking, "I need to get in better shape." Soon after, I started feeling dizzy at work and noticed my felt so heavy that it was hard to walk. 

I went straight to the emergency room from the office. One of the nurses asked me if I was on drugs and gave me an aspirin. A few days later, I was so winded that I couldn't climb a flight of stairs at my house.

One night, at a neighbor's house I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. I thought it was a mosquito bite at first. However, the pain later began traveling up my left side. My neighbor put me in her car and rushed me to the hospital.

The healthcare providers gave me a heart catheterization one day after my admission. They diagnosed me with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart muscle that limits the body's ability to pump blood.

After I was discharged, I went through a depression and developed insomnia. I learned I must take medication every day for the rest of my life, and I was scared I would die in my sleep. No one ever tells you this is your new life, that this is your new normal.

Gradually, I adjusted. Prayer helped me. I got involved with the American Heart Association (AHA) and began helping educate women about heart disease. I use every opportunity I have to inspire others. I want to help people navigate their lives and not let a diagnosis stop them. It won't stop me.

Heart Attack in Your 30s

Here are the stories of Kara Burns and Rolanda Perkins. Both women had heart attacks in their 30s.

Kara Burns, 41, Had a Heart Attack at Age 39

As a former cardiology nurse, I knew all about heart attack symptoms. But that was the farthest thing from my mind when I was hit with sudden chest pain one morning in 2013.

It was a typical Saturday. I was sitting on the bed with my husband and three-month-old baby, watching the news and drinking coffee. Looking back, I had all the classic symptoms: I felt dizzy and nauseous, and the chest pain radiated out to my back. I knew something was wrong—and I needed to get to the hospital—but I didn't think I had a heart attack.

I was about to get into my car when I turned to my husband and said, "I'm not going to make it." 

That's when he called an ambulance, which was there in about two minutes. The firefighters came, too—they rearranged the furniture in my living room while the EMTs put me on a gurney. They swooped me away, and we were off to the hospital. My husband was following behind the ambulance in my Toyota Highlander. Later, he told me, "I didn't know your car could do 95 miles per hour on the highway." I had no idea how fast we were going.

At the hospital, they took me into the trauma room right away. I was an emotional wreck, so they kept me pretty sedated. I only remember bits and pieces of the next 24 hours. I remember waking up and seeing my mom, then waking up and asking where the baby was.

I was in the hospital for five days and spent some time researching what had happened to me. 

The healthcare providers said, "I've only seen one of these in my career," or, "I've read about something like this, but I've never seen it." 

I later learned that I had suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which occurs when a tear forms in a blood vessel. The tests also showed that I had fibromuscular dysplasia, an abnormal cell growth in one or more artery walls.

It was frustrating—I never smoked and didn't have a family history. And I couldn't do things I once did anymore, like carry my baby up the stairs. I kept thinking, "What did I do to cause this?" 

But time heals all things. I'm finally getting the strength to share my story. I started going to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. and got involved with the WomenHeart organization. I never wanted to talk about it for years, but now I do so openly.

Rolanda Perkins, 50, Had a Heart Attack at Age 39

Many things were on my mind in the week leading up to my heart attack, but my symptoms weren't exactly one of them.

At the time, I was under a lot of stress. I was working the midnight shift at my job, a child-abuse hotline, while also planning a huge surprise party for my sister. I wasn't sleeping well, and I internalized much of that pressure.

A week before the party, I started getting bad headaches. I self-medicated with Excedrin, and I brushed it off as a migraine. I figured I was tired, and it would go away after everything calmed down.

I had a heart attack the day after the party, on a Sunday. I was mopping the floor when, all of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I'd never felt anything like that before. I thought maybe it was intense indigestion. And I remember thinking, "I'll go to bed and deal with it tomorrow." That didn't happen. The pain was so bad that it woke me up at around 3:30 in the morning, and a friend drove me to the hospital. 

The tests showed that I had a heart attack when I got there. The healthcare providers performed an angioplasty—a procedure in which a small tube is inserted into the artery to help prop it open.

After I was discharged, I felt alone and confused. I'd never known anyone who'd had a heart attack at my age before—even my healthcare provider didn't give me the support I needed. That was a hard time for me, but I also knew I had survived this for a reason. 

So I began volunteering. I met with women's health organizations. Then, I eventually started a chapter of WomenHeart-Nashville Music City in Nashville, Tenn. That's where women who've had heart attacks can help each other work through their diagnoses.

I felt there was a lack of resources for others like me, and I want to give that to them. I even switched healthcare providers, too, and am much more satisfied with the help I'm getting now. To this day, I tell everyone, "You know your own body. If something's wrong, listen to it."

How To Lower Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

There are steps that you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease, like:

  • Keeping track of and controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels
  • Managing chronic health conditions, like diabetes, that increase your blood sugar
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Eating a healthy diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Limiting your intake of saturated fats, high-sodium foods, and added sugar
  • Consistently being physically active
  • Lowering your alcohol consumption
  • Not smoking or quitting smoking
  • Keeping your stress levels low by practicing mindfulness, meditating, or doing other calming activities  
  • Getting a good night's sleep 

A Quick Review

Even though cardiovascular disease is typically associated with older adults, it can occur at any age. In the United States, many people have health conditions (like obesity and high blood pressure) that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease in their 20s and 30s. 

Heart attack symptoms can be easy to ignore, especially if they're subtle. So, educating yourself on the warning signs is essential, especially if you have any risk factors. And if you have any heart attack symptoms, it's important to call 911 immediately.

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6 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cardiovascular disease.

  2. American Heart Association. What is a heart attack?.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease: It can happen at any age.

  4. Khan NA, Daskalopoulou SS, Karp I, et al. Sex differences in acute coronary syndrome symptom presentation in young patientsJAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(20):1863-1871. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.10149

  5. National Library of Medicine. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

  6. National Library of Medicine. How to prevent heart disease.

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