February is American Heart Month, reminding us to do all we can to keep our hearts healthy and strong. We know heart health is important but with all the contributing factors—from blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to correct diet and exercise—it can be difficult to understand how best to manage heart health. We’d like to set the record straight on some common myths about heart health.
Myth: The symptoms of heart attack present the same for everyone.
Fact: Men and women actually show symptoms of a heart attack quite differently. The traditional image of a man clutching his chest in pain is what many men experience. But women often don’t experience acute chest pain with the onset of a heart attack. A woman’s symptoms are often slower to manifest, and may pass, recur, or build over time. For women the symptoms of a heart attack are acute upper arm, neck, or jaw pain, indigestion, nausea/vomiting, and sudden shortness of breath.
Myth: There’s nothing you can do to prevent heart disease.
Fact: Heart disease may be the leading cause of death for men and women but there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk. Maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels by getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and managing stress and anxiety can all help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Myth: Heart disease is a man’s issue.
Fact: Women outnumber men in death from heart attack. According to The American Heart Association, here are three reasons why:
- The symptoms women present are different than men.
- The rate at which women report symptoms lags behind men.
- The medical and drug interventions for treatment can adversely impact a woman’s health in the short term despite high rate of survival if used.
Additional factors influencing a woman’s heart health include biology, psychosocial reality, and effects of menopause. Most studies on heart health have been done on men who do not experience the changes to the body brought on by menopause. The complex influence of estrogen on heart health is not fully known; and it is difficult to differentiate from effects of aging on overall health.
Myth: Total cholesterol is the only number that matters.
Fact: Total cholesterol has been associated with an increased risk for heart attack and stroke as it climbs above 200. The total cholesterol reported is the sum of both the “good” and “bad” cholesterol--it may not tell the full story. Current guidelines now recommend a full cholesterol panel to assess individual risk.
Myth: You can feel it when you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Fact: Most people don’t feel symptoms of high blood pressure or high cholesterol. That’s why heart disease if often called the silent killer. It’s also why it is important to get your blood pressure and your cholesterol checked regularly after age 40; or earlier if you are at risk heart disease or have a family history of heart disease or diabetes.