The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), with support from the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR), convened a two-day workshop in Bethesda, MD on research challenges and opportunities in cardiovascular health of young adults (age 18-40 years). Several scientific experts with broad expertise in biomedical, behavioral, and social science participated. Although it is well established that the accumulation of clinical and behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) begins early in the life course, trials conducted on the prevention and treatment of CVD that engage participants under age 40 are limited. To enhance the evidence base for clinical practice guidelines, a more thorough understanding is needed regarding if and how altering cardiovascular risk factors early in life will reduce premature morbidity and mortality from CVD in adulthood. Furthermore, interventions may need to take into consideration the physical and psychological development of this age group as well as the modern day epidemiological, social, and technological context. Addressing CVD prevention among young adults is relevant to NHLBI Strategic Vision Objectives 1, 3, 4 and 5.
The objectives of the workshop were to:
Workshop presentations were organized into multiple sessions:
Several themes emerged from the discussion and are presented in detail below:
The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a time of dramatic psychological, social, and biological development that poses unique challenges and opportunities for the prevention of CVD. For example, this life stage is characterized by increased autonomy over decisions that impact health, and the influence of peers and romantic partners becomes more prominent. Young adults may have unpredictable schedules and shifting priorities due to job and/or school transitions. This results in difficulties meeting guidelines for healthy sleep, physical activity, and diet. Young adults have a stronger interest in shared decision making with health care providers, but job and/or school transitions may result in seeing multiple health care providers and/or precipitate gaps in health insurance coverage, which may contribute to a delay in engagement in care overall and particularly for preventive care. Silos across medical specialties and lack of coordination across providers, such as from pediatric to adult care or between obstetricians and primary care providers for young adult childbearing women complicate care.
Societal changes that are specific to the “modern” cohort of contemporary 21st century young adults must also be considered. Modern day young adults are more inclined to desire autonomous, easy access to medical care facilitated by the use of online and mobile technology (e.g., 24 hour “minute clinics” and pharmacies, online scheduling, habit tracking and behavior change apps). Modern cohorts of young adults have higher rates and earlier onset of several key CVD risk factors (such as obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes) compared to prior cohorts, despite the lower rates of some other CVD risk factors (specifically cigarette smoking and dyslipidemia).,, Changing policy trends have resulted in more young adults with insurance coverage, thus reducing this barrier in access to medical care.
Transitions and recent trends impacting today’s young adults should inform the development and implementation of interventions for CVD prevention and management. The ubiquity of connected technology and accessible mobile applications, particularly among young adults, represent opportunities but also present challenges for understanding how these might be used effectively for advancing CVD health. Although these approaches may increase uptake and engagement-- especially for tracking behaviors such as diet, sleep, and exercise--the rapid pace of technology development may outstrip the pace of research. In addition, the absent or delayed engagement of young adults in medical care may challenge the potential usefulness of electronic medical data for assessing population health and the conduct of pragmatic trials.
The young adulthood period may be particularly well suited for studying both biological and psychological resilience, defined as well-being in the face of risk or adversity. Contributors to resilience may be important for understanding many patterns of variation in health outcomes but have not been well characterized. In this life stage, individuals face the challenges of forming identity and achieving financial independence. This period also provides an opportunity to build “reserve capacity” and render one less susceptible to exposure to and/or accumulation of psychological, social, and environmental risks into later adulthood. There is some research in this area, with interventions based in the Positive Youth Development framework and mindfulness programs showing improved outcomes such as reductions in teen pregnancy and depression; however, there has been little study of their impact on CV outcomes.
Furthermore, it would be important to understand how differences in resilience may contribute to disparities in CV health. For example, there are racial differences in the protective effect of higher socioeconomic status on CV health, with SES conferring less of a protective effect on the CV health of higher SES young black adults compared to young white adults. This may be due to the “costs” of social mobility (e.g., cultural and/or social isolation, striving, or being too busy for prevention and medical care).
The perception of risk for CVD among young adults may be consistent with their stage in psychological and social development. There is a notion that cognitive biases lead us to make apparently irrational decisions in terms of life-long health consequences: for example, the rule-of-thumb that one cannot plan for events occurring beyond twice one’s age. Thus, the perceived urgency for adopting preventive and risk reduction behaviors to mitigate the risk of CVD outcomes may be low for early young adulthood (e.g., late adolescence through 20s); whereas, for early midlife (e.g., 30s) this cognitive style may support an inclination toward adopting health promoting behaviors as a “mid-course correction”. In addition, the younger age group may be more prone to a perception that having a family history of CVD means their personal risk is genetic and not modifiable. Recent evidence from NHANES shows there is poor awareness of the presence of CV risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes among adults age 20-39., On the other hand, increasing perception of risk may not be the correct approach for motivating young adults to be oriented towards CVD prevention. Developmentally, young adults incline towards positive, growth oriented, achievement oriented, and prosocial motivations which may be more activating for prevention. Research is needed to understand how to motivate young adults’ adherence to needed behavior changes, medication, or doctor’s visits. Building resilience may guard against negative factors influencing young adult health and behavior. A greater understanding of how to harness those developmentally appropriate attributes of young adults may promote healthful behavior change.
Primary care providers are also subject to barriers in assessing risk among young adult patients. Providers may be hesitant to “label” younger individuals, but workshop participants suggest that having a specific diagnosis often contributes to increased awareness and interest in prevention and/or treatment. It is well known that hypertension awareness is low among US adults generally and this is also true in the young adult period (74.7% age 18-39 years versus 81.9% age 40-59 years versus 88.4% ≥60 years). Even among those aware, treatment (50.0% versus 70.3% versus 83.0%) and control (40.2% versus 56.7% versus 54.4%) rates are also low. Perception among providers that CVD risk is far in the future and therefore control of these risk factors is less urgent may be a factor contributing to these rates and studies suggest less rapid follow-up of elevations in blood pressure. In one study, only 56% of young adults age 18-24 years with multiple elevated blood pressure readings in the electronic health record of a health system received a hypertension diagnosis within 48 months of follow-up. Furthermore, masked hypertension, defined as a normal clinic blood pressure with elevated ambulatory levels, may represent another scenario of under-diagnosis for young adults. There are few studies of ambulatory blood pressure monitoring among young adults, but masked hypertension prevalence may be somewhere between 8 and 20% based on current available data of youth and adults.
Although young adults are at lower overall risk for CVD events in the short term, as a result of accumulating CVD risk this is not uniformly true and a higher risk subset of young adults exist (e.g., Blacks and American Indians, childhood cancer survivors, type 1 and type 2 diabetics, individuals with familial hypercholesterolemia and chronic kidney disease) who may be targets for more aggressive and timely interventions to modify risk. More research is needed in this area to inform providers about prioritizing modification of CVD risk in this population. Another potential barrier is the lack of sufficient evidence to inform the optimal timing and effectiveness of initial and follow-up assessment for CVD risk factors and subclinical CVD among young adults. For example, although the Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth (PDAY) risk score has been validated to predict atherosclerotic lesions among young adults and middle-aged subjects, to our knowledge the PDAY score is not routinely used in clinical practice. The absence of evidence to inform clinical guidelines targeting young adults results in under-recognition of risk and undertreatment by providers. The 2013 AHA/ACC adult risk assessment guidelines provided calculators for lifetime CVD risk assessment starting at middle age (minimum age 40 years) and emphasized use of 10-year CVD risk to guide statin treatment decisions. The lack of risk assessment guidelines for young adults is partly a product of sparse epidemiological and clinical trials evidence for this group. Additional gaps include evidence for sequential versus simultaneous interventions in multiple CVD risk factors, as well as improved non-invasive assessments of lifetime risk that may help guide approaches to prioritizing interventions.
Recent research has focused on CVD risk factor trajectories and development of CVD outcomes. Obesity, hypertension, and smoking are the risk factors most consistently and markedly associated with CVD outcomes among young adults. Epidemiologic data on population trends in risk factor prevalence and incidence show that each risk factor has a unique trajectory for development during the life course. For modern cohorts of young adults, risk factor accumulation is occurring at earlier ages and developmental stages, which may have implications on the timing and types of interventions that should be considered. For example, obesity onset is occurring at younger ages (8 or 9 years old), whereas smoking may occur in late adolescence and early adulthood. The earlier onset of obesity is occurring concomitantly with a population trend toward earlier puberty; the relationship of pubertal timing with childhood and adolescent obesity and their association with adult CVD risk has not been fully elucidated.
Risk behaviors are interrelated, further complicating understanding of trajectories and approaches to intervention. For example, effectively treating smoking causes overeating and weight gain for 80%, and treating the two simultaneously can be overwhelming and cause dropout. Furthermore, simultaneously treating some risk factors while still needing to prevent others as well as not knowing which (or how many) risk behaviors to address adds complexity to comprehensive management of CVD risk. This complexity may impact the sense of urgency to address concurrent issues from both the patient and provider perspective. Interventions for a given risk factor may have a different impact on one’s baseline risk, i.e., some interventions may result in risk regression rather than just stabilization or slowed progression. For example, weight loss and smoking cessation can have one return to baseline risk. However, hypertension treatment to normal blood pressure later in life still has residual risk for CVD outcomes; by the time treatment is initiated some subclinical organ damage may have already occurred. On the other hand, the implications of initiating medications for treatment of hypertension and hyperlipidemia in early adulthood is not clear, as experience with decades-long medication is limited. A third possibility is that the usual risk factor management paradigm will not suffice for young adults. Specifically, it is unknown whether lifetime medication therapy is necessary, or if early treatment, over a discreet period could result in prolonged residual risk factor control and delay or perhaps even eliminate the need to reinitiate medication.
Lastly, more research is needed on the role of social, environmental, behavioral, and psychological attributes on predicting risk trajectories, and identifying which of these attributes may be modified and may change one’s risk trajectory. Such evidence would further justify the expansion of risk assessment to include psychosocial risk (e.g., poverty, adverse childhood experiences, incarceration).
It is well established that men and women have different trajectories for acquisition of CV risk factors and CV outcomes over the life course; the young adult period presents unique challenges and opportunities for understanding these differences. Obese and overweight young adult women may be more susceptible to body image concerns, which may result in delays in medical care engagement due to a desire to lose weight before seeing a health care provider. However, young adult women are more likely than men to have a preventive visit with a health care provider due, in part, to reproductive health needs.
The relationship of pregnancy and childbirth with cardiovascular disease risk is an area for continued investigation. It is not clear if pregnancy simply unmasks underlying risk due to the changes in blood volume and vascular compliance, or if it confers additional risk. There is some evidence to suggest that there is a residual elevated CV risk even after controlling for usual pre-pregnancy risk factors. Additional research is needed to understand the timing (i.e., preconception, during pregnancy, postpartum) and type of interventions that may reduce pregnancy-related CVD risk.
Participants recognized the challenges in quantifying the effect of interventions targeting young adults within short follow-up periods typical of clinical trials (4-5 years), particularly if relying upon CVD event endpoints (e.g., myocardial infarction) and/or all-cause mortality. From a prevention standpoint, subclinical CVD endpoints may be more reasonable for evaluating interventions. More research is needed to determine the best measures of subclinical CVD that address issues related to measurement consistency and costs. Pooled analyses or the use of synthetic cohorts may be needed. Existing cohorts of young adults have varying and limited measures of subclinical CVD. For example, the individual cohorts within the i3C Consortium had too few participants with subclinical measures for cohort-specific age stratified risk analyses; however, when combined in an analysis of pooled data, the ages when risk factor associations with subclinical disease measures are evident were identified. Existing cohorts may also lack sufficient assessment of key risk factors such as patterns of diet, sleep, and physical activity.
Computer simulation methods that forecast downstream CVD outcomes based on clinical trial and observational evidence may identify important areas for research and support intervention trial design. In addition, it is essential to systematically evaluate the design and impact of recruitment and retention strategies to ensure that the collection and interpretation of outcome data from multi-year longitudinal cohort studies and intervention trials are of highest quality in the future.
Participants expressed enthusiasm for the critical need to focus on young adult CVH and the urgency of this focus given the demographic trends in the US and the trend in increasing CVD risk. While the scope of the discussion was broad and focused on multiple types of CVD risk factors, areas of most urgent need included:
The organizers for the workshop plan to publish a report from the meeting with a summary of the discussion and recommendations in a peer reviewed journal.
Nicole Redmond, MD, PhD, MPH, FACP
Medical Officer, Clinical Applications and Prevention Branch, Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, NHLBI
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