During the past decade, we’ve learned a great deal about what causes heart attacks and how to prevent them. But unless you follow medical news closely, there’s a chance you might have misconceptions about the risk factors for heart disease, or heart disease itself.
Here are 10 commonly held but mistaken beliefs:
1. If you have heart disease, you need to take it easy: “For the vast majority of people with heart disease, being sedentary is a bad idea. It can lead to blood clots in the legs and a decline in overall physical condition,” says cardiologist Dr. Richard T. Lee, co-editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter. Physical activity helps strengthen the heart muscle, improves blood flow to the brain and internal organs, and improves overall health and well-being.
What you can do: Ask your doctor what kind of exercise would be right for you, and how much you should do. Most people can walk, and any amount of walking is good for your heart.
2. If you take a cholesterol-lowering drug, you can eat anything: Cholesterol in the bloodstream comes from two sources – your liver makes some, and you get some from certain foods. Statins reduce the amount of cholesterol made by the liver. If you take a statin and continue to eat foods high in cholesterol plus saturated fat, the drug will not be as effective, and your cholesterol level will not fall, and may even rise.
What you can do: Limit your cholesterol and saturated fat intake, so your statin can do its job.
3. It’s OK to have higher blood pressure when you’re older: Blood pressure tends to rise with age, but the fact that this trend is “normal” doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. It happens because artery walls become stiff with age. Stiff arteries force the heart to pump harder. This sets up a vicious cycle. Blood pounding against the artery walls damages them over time. The overworked heart muscle becomes less effective and pumps harder to meet the body’s demands for blood. This further damages the arteries and invites fat into the artery walls. This is how high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
What you can do: Have your blood pressure checked. If it’s above 140/90, ask your doctor what you can do to bring it down.
4. Diabetes won’t cause heart disease if you take diabetes medication: Diabetes medication helps lower blood sugar levels. Maintaining normal blood sugar levels is important for preventing complications that affect the smaller blood vessels, such as kidney disease, loss of vision, erectile dysfunction and nerve damage. But blood sugar control has less effect on the large blood vessels that become inflamed and diseased, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
What you can do: Take your diabetes medication to prevent microvascular complications. Also do everything you can to lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure, stop smoking and drop extra weight.
5. You can lower your risk of heart disease with vitamins and supplements: The antioxidant vitamins E, C and beta carotene factor into lowering heart disease risk. However, clinical trials of supplementation with these vitamins have either failed to confirm benefit or were conducted in such a way that no conclusion could be drawn. The American Heart Association has stated that there’s no scientific evidence to justify using these vitamins to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease.
What you can do: For reasons not yet understood, the body absorbs and utilizes vitamins and minerals best when they’re acquired through foods. To ensure you get the vitamins and minerals you need, skip store-bought supplements and eat a wide variety of nutritious foods of every color of the rainbow.
6. If you have smoked for years, you can’t reduce your risk of heart disease by quitting: The benefits of quitting smoking start the minute you quit, no matter your age, how long you have smoked, or how many cigarettes a day you have smoked. Only one year after quitting, your heart attack risk will have dropped by 50 percent; in 10 years, it will be the same as if you never smoked.
What you can do: Seek help to quit smoking. Many people require stop-smoking aids, such as nicotine patches, nicotine gum, or a stop-smoking medication, to be successful.
7. Heart disease is really a man’s problem: Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over age 65, just as it’s the leading killer of men.
By retirement, 70 percent of men and women have cardiovascular disease, which includes coronary artery disease, heart failure, stroke and hypertension. Risk continues to rise, and by age 80, 83 percent of men and an even higher percentage of women – 87 percent – are affected.
What you can do: Whether you’re a man or a woman, ask your doctor to conduct a baseline heart examination that includes checking your cholesterol and blood pressure. Then follow your doctor’s recommendations.
8. If you have heart disease, you should eat as little fat as possible: It’s true you should eat a diet low in saturated fat, partially hydrogenated fat, and trans fat. But other fats, notably the unsaturated fats in vegetable oils and other foods, are beneficial. In fact, eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, twice a week can lower the risk of heart disease.
What you can do: Include low-fat dairy products, fatty fishes, nuts and olive oil in your diet. If you eat meat, make sure the cuts are lean, and remove the skin from your poultry.
9. A small heart attack is no big deal: “A small heart attack isn’t a big deal in terms of how well your heart can function. It may even pass unnoticed. But it’s a huge warning sign that you have serious heart disease, and your next heart attack may kill you,” says Lee.
What you can do: Minimize your risk of heart attack by keeping your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in a normal range, not smoking and seeing your doctor regularly to make sure no risk factors are elevated.
10. Angioplasty and stenting or bypass surgery “fix” your heart: Angioplasty and bypass surgery can do wonders for relieving chest pain (angina) and improving quality of life. But they don’t stop the underlying disease – atherosclerosis. Without correcting the problems that contribute to atherosclerosis, arteries will continue to become clogged with fatty plaque, which may mean the return of angina or worse – a heart attack or stroke.