So your father had a heart attack at an early age. You're young and healthy; you eat right and don't smoke. How much danger can you be in? In fact, a new study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that the blood vessels in many people like you show signs of disease very early on. Previous studies demonstrated that individuals with a family history of premature coronary artery disease are themselves at high risk but did not indicate when the disease might start to manifest. The new results fill in that gap, revealing that abnormalities known to lead to atherosclerosis can be detected in children as young as six years old.

Investigators compared two groups of healthy young people; subjects in one group had a parental history of premature heart attack, whereas the others did not. On the surface, the groups did not differ significantly. In terms of traditional measures for heart disease risk, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking, they were well matched. But when the researchers peered into their vessels using high-resolution ultrasound, the differences were striking. Children with a parent who had suffered a heart attack before the age of 60 had vessels that were on average 11 percent thicker and 55 percent less reactive (in terms of restoring normal blood flow after using a blood pressure cuff) than those of participants in the control group.

"These results could have important clinical implications," said University of Buffalo researcher Maurizio Trevisan, the lead author on the study. "[They] need to be further explored so we can better understand the causes and disease path of coronary heart disease, and plan early intervention strategies that may save lives."