Over 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. Replacing these myths with truths will give you the information you need so you and your doctor can plan the best path to a healthy heart:
"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. This causes blood levels of cholesterol to drop, which, in turn, reduces the amount of cholesterol deposited in your arteries. 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 millimeters of mercury, 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 (microvascular complications), 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. "These vessels benefit more from lowering cholesterol and blood pressure," says Dr. Alan Malabanan, a diabetes specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
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. These measures will reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
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.