5 myths about heart disease

Published: August, 2014

Over the past decade, we've learned a great deal about what causes heart attacks and how to prevent them. But many people have misconceptions about the risk factors for heart disease, or heart disease itself. Here are five commonly held but mistaken beliefs, plus the facts that will put you on the path to a healthy heart.

MYTH 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 and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Richard T. Lee. Physical activity helps strengthen the heart muscle, improves blood flow to the brain, 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.

MYTH 2: It's okay to have higher blood pressure when you're older.

Blood pressure tends to rise with age, but the fact that this trend is common doesn't mean that it is good for you. It happens because artery walls become stiff with age. Stiff arteries force the heart to pump harder. Blood pounding against the artery walls damages them over time. The overworked heart muscle becomes less effective and pumps even 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.

MYTH 3: 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 supplements of 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 is no scientific evidence showing that these supplements prevent or treat cardiovascular disease.

What you can do: The body absorbs and utilizes vitamins and minerals best when they are 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.

MYTH 4: 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 age, 70% of men and women have some form of cardiovascular disease, which includes coronary artery disease, heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure. Risk continues to rise, and by age 80, 83% of men and an even higher percentage of women — 87% — are affected.

What you can do: Whether you are 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.

MYTH 5: 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 and avoid trans fat altogether. 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.

To read more about the risk factors for heart disease and the latest advances in treating it, buy Diagnosis: Coronary Artery Disease, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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