Heart conditions don’t always give us clues that something is wrong. What’s more, factors like age and genetics can’t be changed. But you can modify behaviors to help lower your risk. For instance, when not controlled, your blood pressure can cause your heart to overwork. And too much LDL or “bad” cholesterol can form plaque and lead to coronary artery disease.
Knowing the facts can help you make better choices. Here are 10 common myths about heart health and the truth behind them:
1. MYTH: Heart disease runs in my family, so there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.
FACT: Although having a family history of heart disease puts you at higher risk, that doesn’t mean you’re destined to develop a heart condition. Lifestyle changes, such as eating better, exercising, not smoking, and controlling your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure, can dramatically reduce your risk.
2. MYTH: I don’t cook with table salt, so I’m in control of my blood pressure and how much sodium I eat.
FACT: Watching your sodium intake is more than going easy on the salt. Sodium comes in many forms. Around 75% of the sodium we eat or drink is found in soups, condiments, canned foods, and prepared mixes. Next time you’re at the grocery store, look for the symbol “Na” and the words “baking soda” and “sodium” on labels. These words indicate that sodium is present.
3. MYTH: I don’t need medication for my cholesterol. I keep it under control with diet and exercise.
FACT: It’s true that many people can keep their cholesterol within normal levels by staying active and eating a healthy diet. But that’s not the case for everyone. Others may need medicines called statins to lower their cholesterol. If your LDL or “bad” cholesterol is above 190 mg/dL, your doctor may recommend statins in addition to lifestyle changes.
4. MYTH: I’ll know if I’m having a heart attack because I’ll have chest pain.
FACT: Not necessarily. While chest pain or discomfort is a common heart attack symptom, the warning signs can be more subtle, especially in women. These include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the jaw, neck, or back. Call 911 immediately, even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack.
5. MYTH: Smoking only affects the lungs, not the heart.
FACT: Smoking is a major risk factor and one you can control. Smoking lowers your HDL or “good” cholesterol and makes blood sticky, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain. It can also increase fat, cholesterol, and other substances in your blood vessels. Women over 35 who smoke and take birth control pills have an additional risk.
6. MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine causes heart problems.
FACT: Inflammation of the heart is a rare side effect of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer or Moderna). In those rare cases, symptoms usually improve, and patients can return to normal activities. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and remain the most effective way to protect against severe complications and death.
7. MYTH: Heart disease affects men only.
FACT: Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease in the United States, affects both men and women. But women aren’t diagnosed as quickly as men are. That's because women are less likely to have symptoms. Or in some cases, they may experience symptoms that can be mistaken for something else, like abdominal pain or pain in the neck or jaw.
8. MYTH: Heart disease is more common in older adults, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
FACT: Heart disease can happen at any age. While your risk does increase with age, younger adults are not spared. In fact, some conditions that lead to heart disease affect younger people. And it’s not just about age. The longer you deal with hypertension, the higher your risk for heart problems.
9. MYTH: I don’t have any common symptoms of high blood pressure, like sweating or facial flushing, so I’m fine.
FACT: High blood pressure, or hypertension, is known for being a silent condition because symptoms aren't always present. For that reason, your only way to tell if your blood pressure is elevated is by tracking your readings. A normal blood pressure reading is less than 140 over 90 mm Hg. Anything above is considered elevated.
10. MYTH: Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar.
FACT: While research doesn’t prove that sugar causes diabetes, there is a strong association between sugary drinks and type 2 diabetes–the most common type. What’s more, eating and drinking too much sugar can pile on calories and lead to an unhealthy weight, which could be a contributing factor.
The bottom line: Heart disease can happen at any age, even if you don’t have a history of heart disease in your family. A healthy diet and exercise are essential for heart health. In addition to keeping an eye on your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure numbers, watch the number on the scale. Having extra body weight predisposes you to conditions that can cause heart problems. Your body mass index, or BMI, can help you understand if you fall within a healthy weight category. Talk to your doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner about your BMI weight status and what you can do to maintain a healthy weight.
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