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Researchers analyzed data from nearly 1.7 million men in Sweden born between 1950 and 1987 who had extensive physical exams when they entered mandatory military service at age 18.
They were tracked for up to 46 years, or to age 64.
During that time, more than 22,000 fatal and non-fatal heart attacks were reported in this group, which occurred at an average age of 50. A higher body mass index (BMI) at age 18 was associated with an increased risk of heart attack before age 65, even after the researchers adjusted for other factors.
BMI is an estimate of body fat based on height and weight. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese (for example, someone who's 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 209 pounds has a BMI of 30).
The increased heart attack risk started at BMI 20, which is considered normal, then rose gradually. Men who had been severely obese at age 18 (BMI 35 or higher) had more than triple the risk of heart attack later in life, according to the study presented Tuesday at the European Society of Cardiology's annual meeting, in Paris.
"We show that BMI in the young is a remarkably strong risk marker that persists during life. Our study supports close monitoring of BMI during puberty and preventing obesity with healthy eating and physical activity," study author Dr. Maria Aberg said in a meeting news release.
Aberg is a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
She noted that the findings dovetail with previous research that linked adolescent BMI to heart failure in adulthood.
"As the prevalence of overweight and obesity in young adults continues to escalate, we may start to see correspondingly higher rates of heart attacks and strokes in the future," Aberg said. "Urgent action is needed by parents, schools, and policymakers to halt the obesity epidemic in children and young people."
Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, Sept. 3, 2019