7 Myths about heart disease

Ask the Expert

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain in the middle of the chest, usually during exercise, Bon Secours St. Francis cardiologist Dr. Jeffrey Senfield said. He lists being overweight, over-exerting yourself, undergoing great stress, and having an underlying disease as factors that often lead to heart attacks.

According to the CDC, about half of Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease. Those factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

When comes to heart disease, Dr. Senfield listed 7 common myths regarding cardiovascular disease, also known as heart disease.

Dr. Senfield says he often hears people say they are too young to have heart disease.

“Heart disease is essentially placque that builds up in the arteries that supply blood flow to the heart. We call that placque or atherosclerosis and that process can start as early as in your childhood,” he said. “Especially if you have a family history of heart disease it would be imperative to reduce that risk, the progression of that placque build up. It doesn’t take much to do so… exercise, eating right, and sometimes you might need to go on medicines earlier in life.”

The American Heart Association’s guidelines recommend that you start checking your cholesterol levels as early as age 20.

Another common myth is that if heart disease runs in your family, you can’t prevent it.

“You, more than anyone, should do everything to reduce things that you do to yourself,” he said. “For example, eating healthy, reducing cholesterol, exercising routinely. There is a specific condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, basically meaning that your family is predisposed to having very high levels of cholesterol, which leads to heart disease. There are specific medicines and treatments and risk factors you want to try to modify if you’re known to have one of those genetic type diseases.”

To know if you have a genetic disorder that could affect your heart health, Dr. Senfield says you should request testing from your primary care physician.

Next, Dr. Senfield said some falsely believe that heart attacks always come with chest pains.

“You don’t always just have chest pains when you’re having a heart attack,” he said. “Sometimes it could present as nausea or abdominal pain, or tingling down the left arm, or stiffness in the neck, or even shortness of breath. Usually there will be a constellation of symptoms, but it’s not always straight forward.”

The American Heart Association lists chest pain in the middle of the chest as a main symptom, especially for men, with a squeezing or tightening sensation. Other common symptoms include shortness of breath, breaking into a sweat, nausea, lightheadedness, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

He also said that women commonly experience different signs of a heart attack.

“They could have odd abdominal pain that’s been off and on for a long time, or people might think they’re having heart burn, but it’s actually cardiac chest pain. If you have symptoms like this and it’s going on for weeks or months, especially with exercise, it’s not unreasonable to get checked out by a family physician or even a cardiologist.”

Ongoing problems could also be warning signs for a condition that could lead to a heart attack, he said.

“You could have another problem that could lead to a heart attack called angina, which stands for cardiac chest pain. If it becomes more symptomatic we call that unstable angina because basically you’re having more symptoms with activity than you were previously. Basically if you have symptoms that are vague when you exercise, and they’re getting worse, sometimes that could mean you are having a blockage in your heart that’s getting tighter and you might want to get that checked out.”

For warning signs of a heart attack, click here.

Also, Dr. Senfield says many people with diabetes believe that as long as they take their medicine as directed, their heart health won’t be affected by the disease. That, he says, is not the case.

“If you have diabetes, we don’t even look at your cholesterol numbers. We already want you on cholesterol lowering agents,” he said. “We know that the risk of heart disease, and other diseases such as kidney and stroke and other vascular diseases, increase with diabetes. It’s very important that if you have a diagnosis of diabetes, you’re seeing a doctor… or even a cardiologist, to make sure you’re optimizing your medicines as best as you can and reducing the risk factors associated with vascular diseases.”

Another myth, he says, is that having high blood pressure would be obvious because there would be warning signs.

“High blood pressure could be a silent killer. You may not have any warning signs… until it gets so high that it leads to hospitalizations or further heart disease, heart attack, or stroke,” he said. “It’s good to check your blood pressure early, in your 20’s and 30’s, to know if it’s higher than the normal population. It’s all about the accumulating risk.”

He says a normal range is in the 120’s or lower for the systolic number, and a diastolic number that is 80 or below. He says it’s important to have been resting for a few minutes before taking a reading.

“A systolic number that is greater than 140, 150, 160 as the high number, that will lead to serious, serious medical disease if left untreated.”

Another misconception, Dr. Senfield says, is that having a fast heart beat means you’re having a heart attack.

“You might have another medical problem that needs to be treated,” he said, adding that a fast heart beat could be a sign of arrhythmia, an abnormal or irregular heartbeat. Most arrhythmias are harmless, he said, but some can last long enough to impact how well the heart works and require treatment.

Finally, he said a common myth is that people should not exercise after suffering from a heart attack.

“You can reduce having another heart attack as much as 20 or 30 percent by getting involved in exercise,” Dr. Senfield said, suggesting cardiac rehab as a way to ease back into exercise.

For more information about how to improve your heart health, click here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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