It’s been long established that young adults in the UAE suffer more heart attacks than their counterparts in Western countries. Experts have gone on record that coronary heart disease, which may cause heart attacks, occurs about 10-15 years earlier in people in the UAE – in their early 30s – than those in the West.
Oddly enough, even young athletes on good form are not immune to risks such as abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), coronary artery disease, and heart muscle disorders, with a definitive increase in the number of coronary events recorded over the past couple of decades. “Drastic changes in lifestyle, including diet and patterns of physical activity, can influence the risk of heart disease in young individuals,” says Dr Brajesh Mittal, Consultant Interventional Cardiology and Head of Cardiology at Medcare Al Safa Hospital.
Drastic changes in lifestyle, including diet and patterns of physical activity, can influence the risk of heart disease in young individuals.
Young athletes’ very dedication to sports and fitness can give rise to cardiac issues. The intensity of physical training and competition can sometimes cause abnormal heart rhythms while repeated strenuous exercise over time can cause wear and tear of the arteries, explains Dr Ghassan Nakad, Specialist Interventional Cardiology at Medcare Al Safa Hospital.
New emerging studies show that advanced exercise and stress are associated with increased oxygen consumption. This causes an increase in the inflammation of the artery walls leading to acute heart attacks and coronary obstruction even in younger athletes.
In addition, young athletes might also have underlying medical conditions that present dangers quite unlike what older people face. “Young athletes may be more prone to cardiac disease due to certain conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart disorder that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest during intense exercise,” adds Dr Mittal. “In contrast, older individuals are more likely to develop atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries as a result of plaque build-up in the inner lining – due to the cumulative effects of ageing, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and other factors.”
However, there’s no reason to panic. Although coronary heart disease can occur in young athletes, it’s relatively rare, explains Dr Samer Kaaka, Specialist Cardiology at Medcare Al Safa Hospital.
Causes for coronary heart disease in this population may include genetic predispositions, substance abuse such as anabolic steroids, and underlying conditions like Kawasaki disease, a rare childhood illness that can affect the coronary arteries.
That’s why young athletes, and in the case of children, their parents, need to actively monitor their physical condition and take necessary action. “Young athletes should be aware of the potential signs and symptoms of heart problems, which can include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, fainting or near-fainting episodes, palpitations (fast or irregular heartbeats), and unexplained fatigue, especially during exercise,” says Dr Kaaka.
When signs and symptoms are ignored, young athletes usually present with heart attacks compared to older patients who consult doctors with stable coronary symptoms. “Treatment for young athletes may involve cardiac catheterisation, medications, lifestyle modifications, or even surgery,” explains Dr Nakad adding that their treatment is highly personalised, depending on the specific condition and severity. “The timing for a safe return to sports will depend on the individual's clinical presentation and will be determined by their healthcare team. In some cases, athletes may need to adjust their training and competition intensity.”
As with every medical condition, prevention is a better strategy for maintaining heart health in young athletes. “This involves regular medical check-ups to screen for underlying heart conditions, maintaining a balanced diet, avoiding substance abuse, and following appropriate training techniques,” explains Dr Mittal. “Adequate hydration, rest and recovery periods are also essential components of preventing injury and heart disease.”
• Listen to the body and seek medical attention for any concerning symptoms
• Prioritise regular health check-ups and cardiac screenings
• Establish a strong partnership with healthcare professionals who understand sports medicine
• Maintain a well-rounded, balanced diet that supports training needs
• Avoid performance-enhancing substances and engage in open conversations about their risks
• Follow a well-structured training plan that includes adequate rest and recovery periods
• Stay hydrated and practise hot and cold weather safety during extreme conditions
• Pay attention to mental health and emotional well-being to reduce stress