Risks for heart disease are now more common among Canadians in their 20s and 30s who historically have been immune to the threat, according to a new report.

A combination of unhealthy habits and demographic changes are combining to place an unprecedented burden on the health-care system that may not be manageable, the Heart and Stroke Foundation said in its 2010 Annual Report on Canadians' Health.

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More than 250,000 Canadians in their 20s and 30s have high blood pressure, making them the newest at-risk group for heart disease.

"We will see as a society a convergence of elderly and the young and other populations at risk, creating a storm of cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Beth Abramson, a cardiologist in Toronto and spokeswoman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. "Most of this is preventable."

Between 1994 and 2005, rates of high blood pressure among Canadians skyrocketed by 77 per cent, while diabetes rose by 45 per cent and obesity by 18 per cent, the report said.

More than 250,000 Canadians in their 20s and 30s had high blood pressure, making them the newest at-risk group.

The problem was worst among those aged 35 to 49. The prevalence of high blood pressure in that age group increased 127 per cent, diabetes by 64 per cent and obesity by 20 per cent.

Other at-risk groups include:

  • Baby boomers aged 50 to 64, of whom one in five have two or more major risks factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity.
  • Aboriginal peoples, who are "experiencing a full-blown cardiovascular crisis."
  • Canadians of South Asian and African-Caribbean descent, because of their genetic predisposition to higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Women, such as the 1.7 million aged 20 to 34 who are inactive, the almost one million who are overweight and the more than 800,000 who smoke.

"We predict that the health-care system will simply be overwhelmed," said Dr. Marco Di Buono, director of research for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.  

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The Heart and Stroke Foundation wants to improve access to affordable nutrition in remote and aboriginal communities. ((Associated Press))

"It's very likely that we're going to see the children and youth of today within a decade from now entering hospital emergency rooms at the same time as their baby boomer parents for the treatment of cardiovascular issues."

Encouraging healthy eating, exercise

More than half the population in every province and territory is at an unhealthy weight. Regional variations in heart-healthy behaviours show the need for a comprehensive heart health strategy that addresses cardiac risk factors, prevention and care, the group said.

The foundation's call to action urges:

  • Improving the nutritional health of Canadians by implementing federal trans-fat regulations, mandating calorie counts on fast-food menu boards, standardizing portion sizes on nutrition labels and improving access to affordable nutrition in remote and aboriginal communities.
  • Funding public education campaigns such as those directed at women.
  • Increasing the availability of automated external defibrillators and CPR training, including in aboriginal communities.
  • Improving access to high-quality cardiovascular care.
  • Encouraging Canadians to be more physically active, eat a healthy diet and be aware of their risk factors for heart disease.

"We all eat from stress, or because we don't have time to prepare things," said Cheryl Shapiro, a heart patient in Toronto who was diagnosed with high blood pressure eight years ago.

She encourages people to read labels. "We don't realize what we're putting in our bodies."

It is difficult to fit in the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least three times a week, Shapiro said, but she does walk her dog regularly.

Part of the solution is to create infrastructure to make it easier for people to walk to the store rather than driving everywhere to avoid exercise, Abramson said.

"It's easy to take shortcuts," Abramson said. "But in the long run, those shortcuts will be disastrous for our health."

There are also hopeful signs. Canadian research published last year indicated a 30 per cent decline in cardiovascular deaths between 1994 and 2004, and hospitalizations for stroke and heart failure fell by nearly the same amount, thanks to prevention efforts and better treatments.