10 Heart Health Myths Busted

Heart disease kills more people in the United States every year than all forms of cancer combined. Most of these deaths occur from heart attack in people with coronary artery disease (CAD). As more and more people adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle and take medications that lower the risk of heart attack, deaths from CAD are dropping. But the 10 myths about heart disease and its treatments discussed below still prevent many from taking the steps they need to avoid a heart attack.


Two to three hours of vigorous exercise a week is needed to benefit your heart.

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Five or six sessions of moderate to vigorous activity a week will lower your risk of dying from CAD and cancer. But you don’t have to be a diehard exerciser or even a weekend warrior to benefit. You do have to get off the sofa and move. Your heart will benefit from any activity you do—and the more you do, the more you will benefit. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk around a shopping mall, vacuum your house, or rake the leaves. Aim for 30 minutes of activity a day—divided into 10- to 15-minute segments is fine—and your heart will thank you. 


Certain “super foods” can prevent heart disease.

No food will prevent heart disease. Foods like blueberries, pomegranates, walnuts, and fish are beneficial for heart health, but cannot prevent you from developing heart disease. Certain diets can, however. The Mediterranean diet, which features whole grains, legumes, fish, vegetables, fruit, and monounsaturated fats like olive oil, has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease.


Fats are bad for you.

Four different kinds of fats are found in foods and not all are bad.  Trans fats are the worst. These artificially made fats (think ”partially hydrogenated”) used in many baked goods and processed foods raise LDL cholesterol levels. Saturated fats, which come from animal products such as red meat and butter, also raise LDL levels. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats may actually lower your LDL levels when used in place of saturated fats.


Your genes determine your risk of heart disease.

Although genetics play a role in some people, 90 percent of CAD occurs through harmful lifestyle choices, such as eating a poor diet, smoking, and getting little-to-no exercise. These choices can raise the level of cholesterol and other harmful fats in your blood, raise your blood pressure, and cause you to develop metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes—all of which raise the risk of heart disease. If you are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, it is very important that you follow a heart-healthy lifestyle and take medications to control these dangerous risk factors in order to avoid or delay a heart attack.


If you have high blood pressure, you will know it by your symptoms.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is called “the silent killer” because it generally produces no symptoms until it causes a heart attack or stroke. Your blood pressure can only be revealed with a blood pressure cuff. It’s a good idea to have a blood pressure reading taken before age 21—earlier, if high blood pressure runs in your family. This provides a baseline for measurements taken throughout life.


Your total cholesterol level is the most important cholesterol measurement.

Total cholesterol includes both good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). We used to think that a large amount of good cholesterol would offset the impact of high bad cholesterol levels, but recent studies have shown this is not the case. Although a high HDL level is certainly a good thing, a high LDL level means your body may be depositing cholesterol in your arteries—which can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other problems. This makes LDL level the most important cholesterol measurement.


Women don’t need to worry about heart disease.

Men tend to develop CAD and have heart attacks at a younger age than women. But, after menopause, the risk of heart attack is the same in women as in men. In fact, more women die from heart disease every year than from breast cancer. The good news is that the chance a woman will survive her heart attack has increased by 56 percent, due to earlier recognition and management of CAD. One reason women aren’t always diagnosed with CAD is that many women use an ob/gyn as their primary care physician and never get a heart examination. Women should have a complete head-to-toe checkup with baseline heart exams in early adulthood. This allows for risk factors to be identified and discussed early, before they impact the heart.


You can treat a very high LDL cholesterol level with diet alone.

If your LDL level is very high, you will need a statin or other cholesterol-lowering drug to bring it down. That’s because your liver makes about 75 percent of the cholesterol in your body and diet is only responsible for 25 percent. A heart-healthy diet may lower your LDL somewhat, but the addition of cholesterol-lowering medication will be important if you have very high LDL and a history of CAD.


Bypass surgery and stenting fix CAD.

When CAD causes blockages in the heart’s arteries, other arteries can be used to bypass blood around the trouble spots. Bypass surgery—known to heart surgeons as coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG)—can help prevent a first or second heart attack and make you feel better. But, it can't cure CAD—nor can stents that prop arteries open. The disease process that caused the blockages remains.


Stenting is safer than bypass surgery.

There’s no doubt that CABG is major surgery. But when it’s scheduled to prevent a heart attack, and performed by an experienced surgeon, the operative risk is less than one percent. Stenting is less invasive than CABG, allowing patients to recover faster, and is just as safe. Certain people are likely to do better with one procedure than the other. In these cases, a cardiologist or cardiac surgeon will explain why.

Dr. Gillinov is a surgeon at Cleveland Clinic's Heart and Vascular Institute, the nation's No. 1 cardiology and heart surgery program as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. He chairs the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

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