Common heart-health myths exposed

HEART DISEASE IS the leading cause of death in the United States, so it’s crucial that people understand the facts. All too often conventional wisdom is way off the mark, say many doctors, and that misunderstanding can have serious impacts on your health.

Myth 1: Heart disease and heart attacks are an inevitable part of aging.

Truth: Your risk of a heart attack doesn’t have to increase as you age. Of course, you can’t change your genes, but you can change the things you do, such as quitting smoking. The Interheart study, landmark research that spanned 30,000 people in 52 countries, showed heart attacks and strokes are preventable when you take measures to improve your risks with exercise, a balanced diet and stress management.

Most people, as they age, do develop hardening of the arteries [atherosclerosis], but not all of us go on to develop heart disease.

Myth 2: Only Type A personalities have heart attacks.

Truth: Data from the 1950s showed that hottempered, high-strung workaholics had a twofold risk of cardiac disease. Today, research finds Type A’s may be more likely to exercise to offset stress than Type B’s, the procrastinator personality. What’s more, Type D’s—distressed,depressed, glass-half-empty types—may be at greatest risk since a worrywart personality increases inflammation in the body. When you’re anxious all the time, your flight-or-fight response is always turned on. Your blood becomes thick and sticky and your body is in a constant state of inflammation, which increases your odds of heart disease.

Myth 3: High cholesterol is the main cause of heart disease and heart attacks.

Truth: The higher the cholesterol, the more likely you are to have a cardiac event. But it’s the type of cholesterol that’s the trouble. Total cholesterol is made up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL: the lousy kind), high-density lipoprotein (HDL: the happy kind), triglycerides and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), which carries triglycerides through the blood. Specifically, it’s the small-particle LDL cholesterol that puts you at risk for heart disease and heart attack, but detecting it requires a more specific test and most people don’t even have it measured. Over time, the lining of the blood vessels develop plaque buildup predominantly from small-particle LDL cholesterol. If you have a family history of heart disease (your dad had a heart event before 55 or mom before 65), ask your doctor about running more specific cholesterol screenings, such as the small-particle LDL cholesterol test, that can further evaluate your risk.

Myth 4: Loners don’t have to worry about a broken heart.

Truth: Today cardiologists agree that emotions and mental state profoundly affect heart health. Studies show there is an increased risk of heart disease in people who are socially isolated and depressed. Depression and social isolation may increase the activity of platelets, which are cells that make blood clots. This increased activity raises stress hormones, blood pressure and glucose, and ups your risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, environmental factors probably play a role since people who are lonely and blue may not exercise, eat healthfully or take care of themselves. While there’s no evidence that expanding your social network and preventing the doldrums improves your cardiovascular risk, it stands to reason, that folks who are deeply connected to others may lead happier, more fulfilling lives and therefore develop less heart disease.

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