Knowledge is power when it comes to protecting your heart. In the case of heart disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.), that means being able to separate misinformation from fact.
Heart disease is an umbrella term for many types of health problems. The most common is coronary artery disease, which occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries that send blood to the heart. Over time, this buildup can slow or block blood flow to the heart and lead to a heart attack or heart failure, according to the National Library of Medicine.
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But because heart disease develops slowly, it's never too late to make changes that can better support your heart health.
Here's a look at some of the heart disease myths that could be getting in your way, plus the facts you can use to keep your heart better protected.
Myth 1: You're Bound to Get Heart Disease if It Runs in Your Family
If you have a family history of heart disease, you're at higher risk yourself, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That doesn't mean you're doomed, though. You'll just have to work harder to protect your cardiovascular health.
"While the genetic component is a strong influence, 90 percent of the identifiable heart disease risk factors including high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure can be controlled by changing eating and exercise habits," says Deepak Vivek, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist at Orlando Health Heart & Vascular Institute.
In other words, eating heart-healthy foods and getting the recommended amount of movement (that's at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio exercise each week for adults, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans) can go a long way toward keeping your heart healthy and strong.
Taking steps to reach or maintain a healthy weight, keeping your blood sugar in check and quitting smoking are important, too, per the AHA.
Myth 2: You Don't Need to Worry About Heart Disease When You're Young
Often, heart disease doesn't show up until a person is in their 50s, 60s or older. But it's possible to develop heart disease much earlier in life, and many adults in their 30s and 40s experience heart disease risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure, which set the stage for the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Taking steps to protect your heart now — like eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep — will help it stay healthier down the road, and keep your heart disease risk lower as you age.
Myth 3: Diabetes Medication Will Protect You From Heart Disease
While it's true you're twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke when you have diabetes (per the CDC), that doesn't mean diabetes medication alone protects you from this risk.
Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and have a negative effect on cardiovascular function. Medications can help keep your blood sugar under control, but you'll still need to take steps to address the factors that caused you to develop diabetes in the first place, like having overweight and high blood pressure, per the AHA.
"Modifying behaviors like diet and exercise, therefore, helps improve heart health," Dr. Vivek says.
Myth 4: You Should Avoid Exercise After Having a Heart Attack
Not only is it safe to engage in moderate exercise while recovering from a heart attack, doing so can help you live longer, per the AHA. Exercise improves your cardiovascular endurance, so as soon as you've gotten the green light from your doctor, you should begin easing back into regular activity.
Working with a trained expert can help you find the right balance. "A cardiac rehabilitation program offers a phased approach to exercise in a supervised setting and is an option if someone is reluctant to return to exercise on their own," Dr. Vivek says.
There, you'll do activities like walking, riding a recumbent bicycle and performing resistance exercises with weights.
Myth 5: You Should Avoid Dietary Fats if You Have Heart Disease
When it comes to heart health, it's not all fat, but the type of fat that's important to limit.
Dr. Vivek says try to reduce saturated fat, found in foods like red meat, butter, cheese and some cooking oil, as they can raise your cholesterol and increase heart disease risk.
However, you can and should eat foods high in unsaturated fat, such as olive oil, nuts, avocado and fatty fish like salmon, to help protect your heart and support healthier blood sugar levels, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many of these sources of unsaturated fat are found in the Mediterranean diet, which research has found to be one of the best diets for heart health.
Myth 6: Supplements Can Lower Your Risk for Heart Disease
While foods high in vitamins C, E and beta-carotene seem to play a role in heart health, that doesn't seem to be the case with their supplement counterparts.
It's true: Vitamin supplements haven't been shown to prevent or treat heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing. So skip the pills and focus on getting your nutrients by eating a wide variety of colorful foods.
"A well-balanced diet will provide the daily recommendations of vitamins," Dr. Vivek says.
Myth 7: If You've Smoked for Years, Quitting Now Won't Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk
While smoking can have a serious negative effect on your heart, quitting has a positive one. Basically, you're never "too far gone" to reduce the damage smoking causes.
"Quitting smoking [at any point] prevents future heart attacks and stroke," Dr. Vivek says.
According to the CDC, heart disease risk plummets within the first one to two years after quitting, and over the years, that risk becomes even with someone who's never smoked.
Talk with your doctor about your options if you find it hard to quit. Quitting isn't easy, but it's possible — and it's never too late.
- National Library of Medicine: "Heart Diseases"
- American Heart Association: "Top 10 Myths About Cardiovascular Disease"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart Disease: It Can Happen at Any Age"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fat: Know which to choose"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "10 myths about heart disease"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Smoking & Tobacco Use: Benefits of Quitting"
- CDC: "Heart Disease and Stroke"
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