Heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of death for Americans every year. Heart disease is an umbrella term that includes a variety of conditions that affect your heart. The most common is coronary artery disease. Heart disease also refers to arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms, and congenital heart defects, which are defects you’re born with.
Each kind of heart disease has its own cause. For example, cardiovascular disease is caused by the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries. This stiffens the artery walls, which restricts blood flow to your organs and tissues. It’s caused by behaviors like lack of exercise, being overweight, smoking and an unhealthy diet. Other types of heart disease like arrhythmias can be caused by defects you’re born with, by stress, prescription medications or by behaviors like smoking and the excessive consumption of alcohol or caffeine. Here are some common myths about heart disease:
Myth #1: If I’m about to have a heart attack, I’ll feel it in my chest.
FACT: While chest pain is a sign of a heart attack, there are also subtle symptoms to be aware of, including feeling lightheaded, being short of breath, experiencing nausea and pain or discomfort in one or both arms, jaw, neck or back. Men are more likely to have chest pain. Women may have different symptoms of heart attack than men, including nausea, vomiting and fatigue.
Myth #2: Leg pain has nothing to do with my heart.
FACT: Muscle pain in your legs could be a sign of peripheral artery disease. The disease is caused by plaque buildup in your legs that blocks arteries. This can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. While many people experience no symptoms of peripheral artery disease, some may experience symptoms including painful cramping in your hips, thighs or calf muscles after walking. Don’t dismiss leg pain, numbness or other symptoms as a part of aging. Meet with your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing. Adults should be screened for peripheral artery disease starting around age 50, but if you if they have diabetes, are obese or have high blood pressure, you should be screened earlier.
Myth #3: Cholesterol is something I don’t need to worry about until I’m older.
FACT: You should get your cholesterol checked every five years starting at the age of 20, according to the American Heart Association. If your family has a history of high cholesterol, it may be important to begin cholesterol testing even earlier. The sooner you can identify any changes in your cholesterol levels, the better prepared you will be to make changes to your diet and exercise.
Myth #4: Heart disease is a man’s problem.
FACT: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women. However, despite awareness efforts in recent years, only about half of women know that fact. Almost as many women as men die of heart disease each year. Heart disease accounts for one in four male deaths and one in five female deaths each year.
Myth #5: There would be warning signs if I had high blood pressure.
FACT: High blood pressure is known as the “silent killer” because there may never be symptoms that there is a problem. Regularly checking blood pressure is important to give you time to intervene if it begins to change. Left unattended, high blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney damage and other serious health issues. As February is American Heart Month, it’s an opportune time to review your family health history and lifestyle to put yourself in the best position to take care of your heart. Though some heart defects can’t be prevented, there are many types of heart disease that can be avoided by making healthy lifestyle choices like quitting smoking, reducing stress, switching to a low-salt, low-saturated fat diet and exercising regularly. This article is the fifth in a year-long series explaining how to manage chronic conditions that can be costly for families and the health care system. For more information about the series, click here.
This content has been reviewed and approved by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you enjoyed this story you may also enjoy: