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Thousands of young Canadians will suffer heart attacks, stroke or die from cardiac disease prematurely based on the current level of dangerous risk factors present among youth, warns one of the first major studies to examine trends of health threats posed to young Canadians.

The prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, have risen by as much as 260 per cent among Canadians aged 12-34 over the 10-year period between 1995 and 2005, according to the study, published online yesterday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In the study, researchers examined the presence of a variety of risk factors for cardiovascular disease in different age groups, income levels and geographic locations.

The growth of risk factors is ubiquitous across age, income and gender lines. But in many instances, people in lower income brackets are being affected to a much larger degree by threats for cardiovascular disease, such as diabetes.

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The study's lead researcher said the increase in health risk factors is startling and will translate into younger heart-attack and stroke victims and ballooning health-care costs unless there is immediate intervention to reverse the trends.

"The concern is that if we see cardiovascular risk factors continue to rise like this, life expectancy may actually shrink," said Douglas Lee, a cardiologist at the University Health Network and scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. "That's the major concern."

Public-health officials have been warning for years that poor diet and lack of exercise among Canadian children would come back to haunt them in the form of chronic health problems. Recently, a growing chorus of physicians and others in the medical community have also begun warning that excessive levels of sodium in processed and packaged foods are doing significant harm to the population's health, making thousands vulnerable to high blood pressure and subsequent diseases.

"I think that's a major contributor," Dr. Lee said.

But this new study is goes much further because it uses population data from Statistics Canada to demonstrate the degree to which lifestyle and health factors have taken a toll on health.

For instance, in 1994 just 1 per cent of Canadians aged 12 to 34 had been diagnosed with high blood pressure by a physician. By 2005, that number had jumped to 3.7 per cent, an increase of 261 per cent. Although part of the rise may be due to increased screening, Dr. Lee said major portions of the population haven't had their blood pressure checked, which could mean the problem is actually underreported.

"So many people are not even aware that they have these risk factors," he said. "It could be a much larger problem than what we reported."

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Researchers also found a 70-per-cent increase in the presence of diabetes during the study period among Canadians aged 12 to 34, as well as a 19-per-cent increase in obesity. Young males accounted for the rise in obesity, with a 40-per-cent increase, while an increase in obesity was found in less than 1 per cent of females. Smoking rates declined in that age group by 28 per cent.

Dr. Lee, a practising cardiologist, said he's seen a growing number of patients in their 20s and 30s who have suffered heart attacks. One of the problems is that few people understand they may be at risk.

Brian Campkin was one of the lucky ones. Two years ago, at age 46, he felt strangely winded after warming up for a tennis match. After seeing his doctor and insisting there was a problem, Mr. Campkin, who described himself as a fairly healthy man who exercised on weekends, underwent five weeks of tests. They showed three of his arteries were clogged, and he was soon scheduled for a triple bypass.

Around the same time, one of his closest friends died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Following his surgery, Mr. Campkin said he wasn't going to take his "second chance" for granted and was determined to lead a healthy life. He completed a 10-kilometre run just months after his bypass.

Now age 48, Mr. Campkin has integrated healthy eating and exercise into his everyday life - not just on the weekends - and tells his inspirational story to groups on behalf of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

When he looks at the sedentary lifestyle and poor diet of many Canadian youths, he said he's worried about the toll that they may take on their health in years to come.

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"I think most of us out there have the … mentality of 'not going to happen to me,'" Mr. Campkin said. "I'm living proof, yes it happens and you can get through it, but I'd rather give you a message on how to prevent it than how to treat it."

In the study, researchers found that increases for cardiovascular-disease risk factors were not limited to young people. The proportion of Canadians aged 50 to 64 diagnosed with hypertension jumped 61 per cent over the 10-year study period, representing about 32 per cent of that age group. The only decreases researchers found was in the number of Canadians who reported that they smoke.

Researchers found increases in health risk factors were often spread disproportionately to lower-income Canadians. For instance, 24 per cent of Canadians in the lowest-income group had physician-diagnosed high blood pressure, compared with 18.6 per cent in the highest-income group, after adjustments were made for age and gender. Prevalence of diabetes, obesity, smoking and heart disease were also higher among low-income Canadians.

They also noted that certain risk factors, such as hypertension and obesity, were higher in some eastern provinces, while smoking rates were highest in Quebec. While Alberta had one of the lowest rates of high blood pressure, it experienced one of the fastest growth rates of this risk factor over the 10-year study period.

Health experts have long known that fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as involvement in sports and other physical activities, may be out of reach to lower-income Canadians because of cost. Marco Di Buono, director of research at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, said Canadians tend to blame parents when children become overweight, but that attitude must change in order to stem the tide of serious health ailments looming over the country's youth.

"These are really societal changes we have to address together," he said.

While government intervention is needed to develop programs aimed at reversing some negative health trends, he said individuals can make small changes, such as walking more, taking the stairs and avoiding fast food and other unhealthy food items.

"This is a storm on the horizon that we're going to have to face head on," Dr. Di Buono said.

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