More than 700,000 Americans will suffer a heart attack this year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of heart attack sufferers will experience this situation for the first time while 210,000 of them will have already gone through a cardiovascular episode. All in all, heart disease claims the lives of about 610,000 Americans each year – representing one out of every four deaths nationwide.
There’s no question that cardiovascular health is an important topic, but there are many misconceptions about heart health even after yearly campaigns for awareness.
In some cases, incorrect information about cardiac health is propagated through dated medical research. Decades ago, healthcare journalists picked up a few nutritional studies that claimed eggs were a high source of cholesterol and thus not conducive to a healthy cardiovascular diet. But eggs by themselves do not provoke low density liprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels to rise. In other words, you can eat eggs. The problem comes from frying them in oils and greases that are rich in saturated fats, which is a problem for any food.
There are other myths we’re still holding onto in 2019. Here are just five common examples.
#1 – A fast heart rate means spells cardiac arrest.
Many situations can bring about brief periods of tachycardia (faster heart rate), such as excitement and exercise, but it may also be a sign of arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat condition that isn’t necessarily linked to heart disease. In some cases, foods that contain certain substances can cause palpitations that feel like the heart is racing because of a sudden and temporary increase in blood pressure. Let’s say you’re sitting at your favorite coffee shop sipping a hot chocolate and you get a phone call with some bad news. This simple and common scenario includes several triggers for a sudden palpitation or rapid heart rate: stress over the bad news, caffeine from your drink and the theobromine alkaloid found in cocoa.
Stress, anxiety and other mental and physical changes – climbing several flights of stairs if you’re out of practice, for example – can make your heart pump faster. If you’re worried or your heart rate continues to climb, check in with a doctor. It never hurts to play it safe.
#2 – Heart disease is hereditary (and there’s nothing you can do to stop it).
The American Heart Association acknowledges that coronary disease and high blood pressure are medical issues that can run in the family. But this doesn’t mean that you’re helpless to prevent heart disease if you’ve got a family history of problems. Knowing what you’re up against in terms of genetics can help you and your doctor take a proactive approach in protecting your heart. If there is a history of heart disease among your family, pay close attention to your habits, lifestyle choices, diet and activity level, more so than someone without any family history of the disease. Cut out tobacco from your life if you use it, keep alcohol to a minimum and adopt other healthy lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of developing problems.
You might also consider speaking with a cardiologist along with your primary care doctor. Specialists will know how to treat you specifically since they have in-depth knowledge of the heart and how it functions, not to mention what the early warning signs of heart disease are. There’s no need to settle for genetic inevitability. You can mitigate your risks by taking a proactive approach to your healthcare.
#3 – Heart attacks always cause chest pain.
Two situations often mistaken for heart attacks are panic attacks and gastroesophageal reflux disease, the latter being an even more confounding health issue because the heartburn intensifies to the point of causing shortness of breath and mental confusion. It’s not unusual for emergency room doctors to order an electrocardiogram on patients suffering from deep anxiety episodes, just to be on the safe side. Cardiac arrest and heart attacks bring about different symptoms, and they may not include chest pains at all. Severe shortness of breath and pain that radiates through one arm are more common heart attack symptoms.
Don’t get us wrong: Chest pain should always be evaluated. Though heart attacks manifest in a variety of ways – nausea, cold sweat, pain in the jaw and back, and a feeling of impending doom (yes, really) – chest pain is still the most common symptom among men and women. Don’t ignore unexplained chest pain, especially if it’s the crushing variety that doesn’t get better with a change of position. Call 911 right away if you’re experiencing any classic symptoms of a heart attack.
#4 – Young people can’t have heart attacks (or develop heart disease).
Heart attacks and heart disease generally affect older people, but young people aren’t immune from developing heart problems, particularly if they don’t eat well and lead sedentary lives. A healthy lifestyle is one of the keys to preventing heart disease. An early Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, for example, would require a certain nutritional intake for young people who are physically active. Kids need plenty of movement and adequate nutrients to stay healthy all the way through adulthood.
Healthcare professionals are also paying closer attention to heart conditions that may be caused by vascular structure deficiencies or congenital electrical issues. These conditions fail to send signals to the heart chambers for the purpose of promoting contractions. When such conditions are present, extreme physical activity can result in cardiac arrest even among professional athletes, let alone teenage football players. The English Football Association is working with medical researchers to implement early detection programs after the shocking deaths of professional players who died in the middle of a match and right on the field.
Other conditions, like tachycardia or arrythmias, can impact a child’s heart health. If you have concerns, bring them up with your pediatrician. Some kids have naturally faster heart rhythms, but a consistently fast heart rate – the threshold for which varies based on age – should be evaluated just to make sure.
#5 – Women have more important issues to worry about than heart health.
This is not exactly a myth as much as a misinterpretation of statistics. While it is true that men are more likely to ignore the warnings that may signal heart problems later in life, the fact remains that heart disease is the cause of death for one of every three American women, even more than breast cancer. And this percentage is higher among female patients who don’t follow treatment recommendations made by healthcare professionals.
You’ll find plenty of campaigns supporting research and awareness of breast cancer and other problems typically ascribed to women, but heart health is critically important for men and women alike. If you’re a woman with other risk factors, like smoking, a family history of heart problems or poor eating habits, check in with your doctor about your heart. Women are more likely to experience other symptoms, like nausea, during heart attacks, so it’s important to know what to look for in the event of an emergency.