Young Americans Fail to Link Unhealthy Behaviors and CV Risk

May 03, 2011

May 2, 2011 (Dallas, Texas) — In a new survey, 80% of young Americans questioned believe they are living healthy lifestyles, but in fact many are not, the statistics reveal [1]. And although the majority surveyed said they wanted to live long and healthy lives, a third did not appreciate that adopting healthy behaviors now could affect their risk of stroke in the future.

"There is a disconnect between reality and what people think their health actually is," president of the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Stroke Association (ASA), Dr Ralph Sacco (University of Miami, FL), told heartwire in an interview. "As part of the new AHA goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans, we performed this survey to get a better sense of what young people think about their health."

The findings are very important, says Sacco, because "all of the studies have been very clear that focusing on healthy cardiovascular behaviors as early as possible in life, even in childhood and young adulthood, carries forward into middle age when vascular risks begin to go up." For example, people who make healthy lifestyle choices lower their risk of having a first stroke by as much as 80% compared with those who don't, he says.

Young adults need to make this connection between healthy behaviors and healthy brains and hearts, Sacco adds. "As the data show, young people still think they are often invincible from CV disease and stroke, but these are still the leading causes of death and disability to most Americans."

Awareness Increases as People Age, But Are They Missing the Boat?

The survey, commissioned by the American Stroke Association and released to coincide with American Stroke Month, questioned 1248 Americans aged between 18 and 44 on their attitudes to health, their behavior, and risk of stroke.

The results indicate that people do become more aware of their overall health and risk factors for heart disease and stroke as they age, but by the time realization sets in, many are already struggling with risk factors.

There were 43% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 36% of 25- to 34-year-olds who were not concerned about cardiovascular disease. In contrast, among 35- to 44-year-olds, only 22% said they were not concerned about cardiovascular disease, but by this age, almost half (48%) already had health concerns.

According to the AHA, the most important healthy behaviors to adopt as early as possible include eating a low-fat diet high in fruit and vegetables, drinking alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverages in moderation, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy body weight, and not smoking [2].

But in fact, says Sacco, "We have right now evidence from national statistics that show that less than 0.5% of the public are actually following our seven key steps for ideal cardiovascular health. The two areas where I think we have the biggest disconnect are diet and exercise," he says, adding, "That's where we have the most control, through behavioral change, to make a difference."

The new survey shows that 21% of young women and 31% of young men "are likely to eat fast food"; only around a third say they are "likely to eat recommended servings of fruits and vegetables"; around 40% engage in regular physical activity; and only half are "likely to obtain or maintain a healthy weight."

Sacco says help is at hand for those who need guidance. "AHA has a number of campaigns to try to educate children about healthy eating, cooking, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We have some programs--'revolution kitchens' and 'teaching gardens,' for example--and other campaigns to educate the public, particularly the young public, on the key aspects for maintaining health."

The AHA and ASA are also lobbying to improve community facilities, he says. "There is a whole set of goals to change what's called the 'built environment,' so that there are better walking paths, running paths, safe ways for kids to walk to school, and safe approaches for people to be able to bike in urban environments. That's a way of getting more physical activity indoctrinated into our daily routine."

Don't Forget Smoking

"We also haven't given up on smoking," Sacco stresses. "It is still a big issue. Even though we believe smoking has reduced overall with all the good campaigns--the number of smokers is down--we still feel smoking is a very important behavior never to start, because it's an addiction, and once you smoke, it's very hard to quit. And smoking can have adverse health effects even in young people."

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