Our knowledge of heart disease has jumped by leaps and bounds over the years. But there are still a few misconceptions of this leading cause of death of both men and women in the United States. Separating truth from fiction just may be the lifesaving information you will need of someday beating your odds of developing heart disease and instead keeping your heart beating into old age.
1. Heart disease only develops in the elderly
The beginnings of plaque accumulating in the arteries starts long before you reach old age. Starting already in childhood and adolescence and depending on several factors such as family history and diet, arteries can slowly become clogged through the years until it makes its appearance later on. But heart problems can be found even in young and middle-aged people – heart disease tends to be an equal opportunity condition.
What to do: Take care of your heart from the beginning by knowing risk factors for heart disease and work on reducing the ones you can.
2. It’s no big deal to have hypertension when older
Yes, blood pressure does rise with old age but the truth is it is a big deal. As artery walls stiffen with age, the heart is forced to work much harder to pump blood through them setting up a vicious cycle. When blood is pounding forcefully against artery walls, this causes damage. The heart becomes less effective at pumping blood throughout the body which further damages the arteries. When this scenario is happening, blood pressure is rising increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
What to do: Have your blood pressure checked at least once a year and always ask what it is.
3. If I’m having chest pain, then I will know I’m having a heart attack
Chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack but not always. There can often be more subtle signs such as shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded, nausea, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the jaw, neck or back.
What to do: If you’re having those symptoms out of the ordinary, call 911 immediately. Also learn symptoms of a heart attack for both men and women.
4. You can eat anything if you take a cholesterol-lowering medication
Statins are medications used to help lower blood cholesterol which could increase a person’s risk for a heart attack or stroke. Even when taking a statin, it is still important to also eat foods low in saturated fat to help the effectiveness of the drug.
5. As long as I take medication for diabetes I’m not at risk for heart disease
Once a person receives a diagnosis of having diabetes, their risk for heart disease goes up. Regularly taking medications for diabetes is one way of keeping blood sugar levels under control but even then a person is still at risk of heart disease. The risk factors that contribute to the development of diabetes such as inactivity, obesity, and hypertension can make you more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
What to do: Get in regular physical activity, lose weight if necessary, eat a healthy diet and keep tabs on your blood pressure.
6. I’m a woman – I don’t need to worry about heart disease
The fact is heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over the age of 65. Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from this disease. Once a woman goes through menopause, her risk of developing heart disease is at the same level as a man’s risk.
What to do: Whether a man or woman, have your doctor do a baseline heart examination which includes checking your cholesterol and blood pressure.
7. Quitting smoking won’t reduce my risk of heart disease
From the minute you decide to smoke your last cigarette, no matter how long or how many cigarettes you have smoked your body will thank you as the benefits begin immediately. After 48 hours your ability to taste and smell improve and after 72 hours it is easier to breathe. After three months lung function improves by 10 percent and after a year your risk of a heart attack is reduced by half that of a non-smoker.
What to do: Seek help in quitting smoking. There are many aids out there to help someone with kicking the habit such as nicotine patches, nicotine gums and medications that may be helpful.
8. I’ve noticed pain in my legs but that wouldn’t have anything to do with my heart
A condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD) results from blocked arteries in the legs caused by plaque buildup. Leg pain felt within the muscles can be a sign of PAD and could indicate you’re at risk for a possible heart attack or stroke.
What to do: If having unusual leg pain, consult with your doctor first to see if it may be PAD. There are several ways to reduce your risk of developing PAD – quit smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, exercise regularly, eat more of a plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, and work on controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.