Having a heart attack is less likely in younger people, and the risk increases as a person ages. People should call 911 immediately if a person has symptoms relating to a heart attack.

Although having a heart attack is uncommon when a person is young, the American College of Cardiology states that people under 40 are now experiencing heart attacks more often, with a 2% increase over the last decade.

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when there is a loss of blood supply to the heart muscle, usually due to a blockage. When this happens, the heart does not get enough oxygen and blood.

Without treatment, the damage to the heart muscle becomes irreversible and leads to a heart attack.

This article covers the risk of a heart attack based on a person’s age.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA) state the average age of a person at the time of their first heart attack in the United States is 65.5 years for males and 72 years for females.

However, heart attacks can happen to anyone. An article from 2019 notes that the incidence of heart attacks is rising in those under the age of 40.

Based on the findings from a 2018 study, hospitalizations for heart attacks are becoming more prevalent among those under the age of 55, particularly Black women.

The researchers note that compared to men, young women were more likely to have a history of conditions that can increase the chance of a heart attack, including:

However, they were less likely to smoke.

The researchers also note that young women are more likely to have health insurance, which means they may be more likely to seek medical attention, resulting in higher hospitalization rates.

A 2018 study consisting of 2,097 people found that a rise in cannabis and cocaine use in those under 50 years of age may be a contributing factor for heart attack. The researchers state that 10% of those with a heart attack have taken cocaine or cannabis.

An older study from 2010 notes that the incidence rate of heart attack is seven times more likely in those aged 65–74 compared to those aged 35–44. The incidence rate has a two- to threefold increase for those over the age of 80 compared to those aged 65–69.

Based on 322,523 people, the AHA notes the following incidence rates of heart attack with obstructive coronary artery disease (MI-CAD) and heart attack with nonobstructive coronary arteries (MINOCA):

AgeIncidence of MI-CAD and MINOCA combined
Over 5018%
50–5927%
60–6926%
70–7918%
80–8912%

A 2020 study based in Norway examined the incidence of heart attack in those aged 45 years or less in 33,439 people. The researchers noted the following incidence rates:

AgeIncidence of heart attack per 100,000 people
20–292.1
30–3916.9
40–4997.6

The authors noted that, compared to older adults, those who experienced a heart attack under the age of 45 were more likely to:

  • be male
  • smoke
  • have obesity
  • have a family history of premature heart attacks

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes that the risk of a heart attack typically increases as a person gets older. This is because of the several physical changes to the heart and cardiovascular system in general.

Some of these changes include:

  • A buildup of fatty deposits: Fat can build up on the artery walls. This will narrow the coronary arteries, which supply blood and oxygen to the heart. This condition is called atherosclerosis.
  • Hardening of the arteries: As a person ages, the arteries become harder. When the arteries are not as flexible as they should be, the risk of having a heart attack could increase.
  • Thickened heart walls: The walls of the heart may thicken, leading to increased heart size. The volume of blood reduces despite the larger size of the heart.
  • Weak heart valves: The heart contains four valves that work to prevent blood from moving in the wrong direction. As a person ages, these valves may become stiffer or weaker, making it hard for the heart to control blood flow.
  • Increased sodium sensitivity: Some people may become more sensitive to sodium while others may not. The NIA reports that an increase in sodium sensitivity can increase a person’s risk of a heart attack.

The AHA states that the following are unchangeable risk factors for heart attack:

  • Age: As people get older, their chances of heart attack increases.
  • Sex: Males are more prone to heart attack compared to females who have not reached menopause. However, this risk is equal between males and females who have reached menopause.
  • Genetics: People who have family members that have had a heart attack may have a higher chance of having a heart attack.

Other risk factors may include:

  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • high blood cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • physical inactivity
  • having overweight or obesity
  • stress
  • alcohol
  • an unhealthy diet that does not include foods containing vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients

The AHA also notes that, compared to white people, heart disease is more likely to develop in those who are:

  • African American
  • Mexican American
  • American Indian
  • native Hawaiian
  • Asian American

Many factors play a role in high rates of heart disease in historically marginalized populations. These can include:

  • socioeconomic disparities
  • a lack of access to healthcare
  • discrimination in healthcare

Learn more about heart disease in African American populations here.

To reduce the risk of having a heart attack, people can try:

  • Stopping smoking: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that chemicals in tobacco smoke can destroy the function of the heart as well as its blood vessels. This could lead to atherosclerosis and increase the risk of a heart attack. Avoiding smoke can dramatically boost the heart’s performance as well as other vital organs in the body.
  • Avoiding passive smoke: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that passive, or secondhand smoking, can increase the risk of a heart attack.
  • Reducing their cholesterol level: Having high cholesterol levels, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, can increase the chance of heart attacks. A person can speak with a doctor to find out the best treatment plan for lowering high cholesterol levels in the body.
  • Maintaining normal blood pressure: High blood pressure could alter structures in the heart that decrease its efficiency. To help regulate their blood pressure, a person can take medications, engage in physical activity, and eat a healthy diet.
  • Managing stress: Recent research has proven that chronic stress is a risk factor for heart disease and, consequently, a heart attack.
  • Getting regular exercise: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adults utilize at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
  • Maintaining a moderate weight. A 2021 report pointed out that a wider waist circumference is a great factor in having a heart attack. People should try to achieve and maintain a moderate weight.
Learn more

Find out about how to improve heart health:

Heart attacks are medical emergencies. Call 911 or emergency help if a person is experiencing a heart attack.

Heart attack symptoms can differ in each individual. However, the major symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • neck, jaw, or throat pain
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • upper back pain

Females may experience different heart attack symptoms. Similarly to males, chest pain is the most common symptom. Other symptoms in females include:

  • pressure, fullness, pain, or squeezing in the center of the chest
  • pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweat
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness

Learn more about signs of a heart attack in females.

Heart attacks can occur at any age. However, the risk increases as a person gets older. Over the past decade, the prevalence of heart attacks in those under 40 appears to have increased.

Being male or having a family history of heart disease can contribute to the chances of having a heart attack.

A person can alter some risk factors such as changing their smoking habits, eating habits, levels of physical activity, and alcohol consumption.

People should speak with a doctor to find out how to reduce their chance of having a heart attack.