There are few non-traumatic causes of death that happen as suddenly and without prior knowledge of any ill health more than myocardial infarction or a heart attack. Certainly there are disease states or signs ahead of time that put you at risk for such an event. Smokers (including secondhand smoke), high stress lifestyle, heavy metal exposure, air pollution, increased fat or sugar, diabetes, chronic infections, lack of exercise…does this fall into the heading of a 12 year old? Sure it does. In fact science has shown us that atherosclerosis has its beginnings in this age group. Although we typically don’t screen this age group for any diseases unless symptoms arise, studies have shown that 1 in 6 teens already have atherosclerotic plaque in their coronary arteries.
So what is this atherosclerosis and what makes it such a ticking time bomb in so many of us? It is something that affects half of us (at least in this continent). For reasons that are not completely understood, a fatty streak develops with the help of the above mentioned triggers, perhaps on a damaged or oxidized piece of endothelial cells which lines the inside of the blood vessel. This causes the immune system to respond with white blood cells congregating to this area. Cholesterol in the blood accumulates and a deposit begins to form in the lining of the blood vessel. Calcium and fiberous tissue builds up forming a plaque and a noticeable hardening of the area occurs where the elasticity of the blood vessel is compromised. As blood flows through the vessel, it expands and contracts and makes the plaque more unstable and prone to rupture. A plaque can be stable or unstable. Unstable plaques have more normal macrophages and foam cells (fat laden macrophages). A fiberous cap develops that can rupture and expose the contents like collagen to the blood supply. This results in a clot forming and breaking off, only to get lodged in a smaller blood vessel and the blood supply is blocked, like in the blood vessels supplying the heart or brain. Or maybe the plaque grew to the point that it blocked off the vessel without rupturing at all.
So what does this have to do with a 12 year old. All of this happens so slowly it can start at that age or earlier. Plaques can change size and shape in only 6 weeks but the foundation of this structure have its beginnings in a child’s circulatory system. We work so hard and pay so much in trying to eliminate cigarette smoke and to keep it from children today as opposed to 40 years ago – which is great. Why not recognize the impact a sugary drink has on this highly influential blood vessel. Removing sugary drinks from my pharmacy had many reasons, not the least of which are diabetes and obesity. Sudden death from a heart attack later on in life with no warning should be a motivating factor in cutting back on or removing these beverages from everyone’s diet.