Health Matters: Heart Health Myths
By Dr. Manuel Cortes
It is one of the most recognized organs in our body – the heart. It shows up in literature and pop culture frequently, and as you’ll likely notice this month, it can also be used in decoration and food design for special events such as Valentine’s Day. However, as much attention as we pay to the heart, people still don’t seem to know as much about this very vital organ as they should, especially given heart disease is the number one killer worldwide.
Let’s start with the main misconception played out in endless movies and TV shows over the years – an elderly man grabbing his chest amid an obvious heart attack. While this isn’t a completely false portrayal, it is done so often that many are mistaken in thinking heart disease is one that only impacts men or people over the age of 65. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, and the truth of the matter is how we live our lives as children, adolescents, and adults lays the groundwork for our heart health as we age.
Relying on false assumptions can be dangerous to your health, so I’d like to set the record straight on a few of the most common misconceptions:
I’ll know when I’m having a heart attack because I’ll have chest pain
Remember that scene I described earlier of the man grabbing his chest? It’s important to realize that while chest pain is a common sign, there are other symptoms that can be just as much of an indicator that you need immediate medical help – things like shortness of breath, nausea, feeling lightheaded, or pain in your arm. Bottom line – if something feels off and you’re not sure, call 911.
I’d know if I had high blood pressure, because there would be warning signs
It’s true that high blood pressure is a problem you want to know about – it can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries, which can result in a heart attack, stroke, or other complications. However, it is known as the ‘silent killer’ for a reason. Most people don’t know they have it until the damage is already done – all the more reason to know your numbers (which include blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and body mass index).
I take medications for diabetes, to lower my cholesterol, or … fill in the blank … so, I’m all set
While medications are a helpful part of treatment, they’re not a cure or license to let loose. Even when your numbers are under control, your habits are key to staying healthy. Eating whatever you want, or physical inactivity can reduce the drug’s effectiveness and still put you at an increased risk for heart disease.
If you have heart disease, you should take it easy
This may be the most dangerous myth of all, as a sedentary lifestyle is one of the more serious public health problems of our time. Sitting around too much can double your risk of cardiovascular diseases and increase the risk of high blood pressure.
Increasing physical activity doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon. Any extra movement helps strengthen the heart muscle and improve blood flow, so talk to your provider today about developing an exercise plan that suits your needs and abilities.
If you have heart disease or a family history of heart disease, there’s nothing you can do about it
Heart diseases are 80% preventable, so regardless of your background, healthy behaviors can make a huge difference toward keeping you healthy. Even if you’ve already been diagnosed, the most important thing to remember is it’s never too late to treat or prevent heart disease.
The bottom line is that many heart diseases are serious, but manageable. By replacing the above-mentioned myths with truth and talking to your doctor about putting together the right plan for you, a healthy heart is well within reach.
* Dr. Manuel Cortes is an interventional cardiologist with Mercy Health – Heart and Vascular Institute in Lorain. In addition to 4 years of medical school in his native country of Mexico, Dr. Cortes received his medical degree from the University of California – Irvine.