10/25/2011 06:08 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2011

Atherosclerosis Can Also Affect The Young And Healthy, Study Shows

Think being young, healthy and without a family history of heart disease means your heart is in good shape?

You may want to think again.

A small new study by Canadian researchers shows that even young people who don't have any symptoms or a family history of heart disease can have atherosclerosis, which is the thickening of arteries because of fat build-up. The condition can lead to heart disease and stroke, and eventually death. The research was presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2011.

In the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada study, researchers took down the health data of 168 young adults ages 18 to 35. None of them had any known heart disease or a family history of high blood cholesterol or blood pressure, smoking, diabetes or heart disease.

Researchers found that even though most of the people didn't have extreme signs of atherosclerosis, they did have some of the more "discrete" signs, including visceral fat around their organs and a wide waist circumference. Visceral fat is tricky because it is deep in the body and not necessarily seen just by looking at someone's physical appearance.

MSNBC also reported that 48 percent of the study volunteers had some thickening of their blood vessels.

"We know obesity is a bad thing, but we're dropping the ball on a large proportion of young adults who don’t meet traditional measures of obesity such as weight and BMI," study researcher Dr. Eric Larose, a cardiologist at the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Quebec, said in a statement.

The study shows that it's important to take early intervention for preventing heart disease, especially if you have a risk factor for the disease, researchers said.

Previously, research suggested that up to 80 percent of young people who die in car accidents or in war also have hidden atherosclerosis, researchers added. In addition, a 2001 study in Circulation showed that changes in arteries can happen at an early age.

Recently, studies have found that moderate alcohol consumption is linked with a decrease in atherosclerosis. The University of Maryland Medical Center also reported that eating a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as exercising regularly and not smoking, can reduce atherosclerosis risk.