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At age 27, in preparation for a new job, Robert Derbyshire underwent a standard physical and was surprised to learn that he had high blood pressure.

But he was young, carefree, healthy and relatively active, so he didn't pay much attention to the news.

It would be three more years before Mr. Derbyshire would go for another checkup. In the interim, he had put on quite a bit of weight, his eating habits had deteriorated, and his stress levels skyrocketed.

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"The doctor said it pretty bluntly: 'I'm concerned about your heart health,'" he said. Mr. Derbyshire's blood pressure was measured at 165/98 millimetres of mercury (mmHg), a strikingly high number, particularly for someone of his age. (In healthy adults, the reading should be closer to 120/80 mmHg.)

"The face of heart disease in Canada has changed to include groups that have historically been immune to heart disease," said Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokeswoman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Cardiovascular disease has traditionally been viewed as an ailment of aging but is now stalking a small but significant and ever-increasing minority of younger adults.

For example, high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke, now affects 2.5 per cent of those in the 20 to 34 age group, 7.1 per cent of men and women aged 23 to 44 and 22.9 per cent of those 45 to 64, according to data released Monday by the foundation in its annual report card.

These numbers have almost doubled in the past decade, said Stephen Samis, director of health policy at the foundation.

"The real tragedy is that this is largely preventable," he said.

But, Mr. Samis added, there is no "comprehensive, co-ordinated strategy" in place to improve the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of those with cardiovascular disease.

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Last year, a coalition of health groups released such a plan - the Canadian Heart Health Strategy and Action Plan - that called for a sweeping number of measures, including empowering Canadians with education, creating heart-healthy environments and reforming health care delivery to ensure more integrated patient-centred care.

To date, the heart strategy has not been funded by the federal government. (Ottawa has, however, provided money to implement national strategies on mental health, cancer, diabetes and lung health.)

Mr. Derbyshire, now 34 and a senior consultant in the Ontario government, said that, even on a personal level, being educated and having a plan is crucial. With a diagnosis of hypertension, he was referred to a specialist and enrolled in a research project designed to tackle his principal underlying issue, stress.

The study participants practised meditation and yoga, and were counselled by a nutritionist and a personal trainer. The program did wonders for Mr. Derbyshire: His weight fell from 240 pounds to 195 pounds; his body fat dropped from 30 per cent to 12 per cent; and, most important of all, his blood pressure hit 122/70.

"I learned stuff that people my age just don't know - proper nutrition, how to exercise and how to handle stress," he said. "I still face a lot of stress but now I can deal with it."

While the new report placed a lot of emphasis on the impact of cardiovascular disease on younger people, it also underscored that heart disease and stroke remain big issues for seniors, particularly with the aging of the population.

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Marco Di Buono, director of research at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, said that one in five baby boomers already have at least two of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease - hypertension, diabetes, smoking and obesity.

"The large number of boomers who need to prevent and manage their risk factors will put great strain on the health care system and turn back the clock on the gains we have made," he said.

In 2005, the most recent year for which there are detailed data, there were 67,343 deaths caused by heart disease and strokes, according to Statistics Canada.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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