Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in America. It kills more than 800,000 people every year. What doctors are seeing now is that people are having heart attacks, on average, four years earlier than before.
“Everything can change. I mean everything. My whole life changed,” said Vanessa Wright.
Wright is one of those women who we might all envy. She is happily married, a homeowner, a dog mom, working at a job she loves. Seemingly, she had it all. Then suddenly, she had a heart attack at age 32.
“My vision just started getting smaller and smaller and... that's when I blacked out,” said Wright, describing the terrifying moments when she knew something was wrong—but couldn’t quite identify what was happening.
“Part of what contributed to my heart attack was birth control,” said Wright, citing what doctors told her. “Because one of the side effects of my birth control is blot clots, and that's the type of heart attack that I actually did have.”
Smoking increased Wright’s risk for heart disease, but she just didn’t know.
“If you do birth control pills and maybe also smoke, your risk of heart disease is up by 20 percent,” said Dr. Juzar Lokhandwala, a cardiologist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial.
A recent Cleveland Clinic study shows almost half of women in America are in the dark when it comes to knowing their risk of heart disease.
"The number one risk factor for heart disease is smoking. So, if you're smoking, you need to quit,” said Dr. Leslie Cho.
Other red flags, ladies: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and family history.
“The first time around, I felt pain in my shoulder,” said Melissa Salazar, 43, who survived two heart attacks last year. Salazar is a working mom with high stress and high cholesterol – but she ignored it.
“I’m young, but it happened to me-- it can happen to anybody,” said Salazar.
Dr. Lokhandwala said younger people are coming through his doors with heart disease more than ever before.
“That happens more in younger people because they don’t think they would have it,” he said. “We've cut the death rate of heart disease by 50 percent in the last 20 years, but most of that has been in the older folks.”
Dr. Lokhandwala said that our collective heart problems could stem from undiagnosed congenital heart defects or pregnancy related weakening of the heart—but also: high stress, going overboard with alcohol, and excessive stimulants like energy drinks, coffee, weight loss pills and Adderall.
“Oh yeah, that was exactly the life I was living. Exactly,” said Wright, who wants her wake-up call to be yours.
“It was really a huge awakening,” said Wright. “To realize it doesn't matter. It does not matter how old you are.”
After age 30, regularly check your blood pressure and cholesterol. Normal BP is 120/80. Keep the bad cholesterol under 130. If your numbers are higher, see your doctor right away. And, one more thing: quit smoking!
“December 12, 2016-- I quit smoking that day,” said Wright, who openly admitted to smoking two packs per day.
Ditching cigarettes is just one of many life changes for Wright.
“I don’t even own a salt shaker anymore,” said Wright. “I threw out the salt shaker… and I really look at the labels of stuff. That's one big thing.”
Since Salazar’s pair of heart attacks, she has switched from fried fast food to salads, started meditation and lost 25 pounds thanks to exercise through cardiac rehab.
“It’s on me to keep it up from here on out,” said Salazar.