Unmasking Myths about Heart Disease

It's no surprise that myths about heart disease often prevail. After all, the heart is a truly mythic organ — the fount of all life. Throughout the world's cultures, heroes and heroines of mythology and legend usually are persons of great heart. The same can be said of persons of great cunning. Their hearts are the embodiment of the courageous lifestyles that inspire the masses. But although myths can and do inspire, they also can kill . . . particularly the many myths surrounding heart disease. So let's bust a few.

The myth of modern maturity

Heart disease is a disease of middle age and older years.

Many people think of heart disease as a problem of middle and older age, because that's when the manifestations of heart disease, such as angina and heart attack, strike. What a dangerous myth. Although the manifestations of coronary artery disease typically occur during the middle and later years of life, the roots of coronary artery disease lie in childhood. Using heart-healthy lifestyle measures not only will help you but also will enable you to set an example for your children and grandchildren.

The myth of the old-boy network

Men are much more likely to get heart disease than women.

Way too many women think that heart disease is mainly a male disease. However, heart disease is by far the leading cause of death for women. Women are six to ten times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer (which women fear more). When cardiovascular disease and stroke are combined, these two diseases claim more female lives every year than the next 16 causes of death combined.Even so, many of these deaths are preventable.

The Eisenhower Myth

After you've had a heart attack, your life will move inexorably downhill.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while in office — a first. His cardiologist, Dr. Paul Dudley White, from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, appeared on national television to assure the anxious public that if President Eisenhower paid attention to what he ate and became involved in a regular walking program, he could continue to fulfill the strenuous duties of the highest office in the land. Most people were surprised to hear it. As Ike proved, you have no reason whatsoever to give up after you've had a heart attack. Modern cardiac rehabilitation can help people who've suffered a heart attack or have other serious forms of heart disease to live full, vigorous lives for many years after they experience the first manifestations of heart disease.

The myth of no pain, no gain

To get cardiac benefit from exercise, you need to get sweaty and out of breath.

Many sedentary individuals (and, indeed, many exercisers!) share the myth that you have to exercise at a fairly intense level to achieve cardiac benefits. To some degree, this myth grew from the advice of well-intentioned exercise physiologists, who said that improving your aerobic fitness requires at least three or four 20- to 30-minute sessions of continuous vigorous exercise every week. Without question, this advice is excellent if your only goal is improving your aerobic capacity. However, if your goal is lowering your risk of heart disease, totally different rules apply . . . you simply need to become more active. Accumulating 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all, days is a solid goal.Don't let the myth that you have to sweat like crazy for 30 minutes straight keep you and your heart declining . . . uh, reclining on the couch.

The cave man myth

If you're having chest pain, the best thing you can do is wait and see whether it goes away.

The Peanuts character Linus once asked Charlie Brown how he approached a problem. Did he tackle it right away, or think about it first? Charlie Brown responded, "I try to go into a cave and hope that it will go away." That may work in other areas of your life, but ignoring the symptoms of acute heart disease is a bad idea. The longer the delay before treatment of a heart attack begins, the greater the potential heart damage. If you're having significant chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or any other symptoms that suggest a heart attack, call 911 immediately so you can be transported to the emergency room. Don't hide in a cave!

The myth of the stiff upper lip

Dying of a broken heart or being scared to death is not possible.

Folk wisdom long has suggested that people can be scared to death or die of a broken heart. Many cardiologists, however, say that your emotions and mental state can affect your behavior but not your heart. From this point of view, it doesn't matter whether you keep a stiff upper lip and bury your fears, pain, and stress or deal with them. Multiple scientific studies show that important mind/body connections exist for health in general and cardiovascular health in particular. Your levels of stress, your connection to other people, your sense of giving and receiving love all are extremely important for your cardiovascular health. Your goal should be using these profound linkages to promote cardiovascular health.

The myth of Jupiter

We all will die of heart disease, if we live long enough.

Jupiter, the Roman King of the Gods, killed mere mortals by hurling thunderbolts from the sky. This myth expresses the presumption that heart disease is an act of God. Not so. Dying of heart disease is not inevitable. Recognize that your own habits and actions play the biggest roles in whether you develop heart disease. Take a tip from baseball great Mickey Mantle, who humorously said of his health-destructive lifestyle, "If I knew I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself!"

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