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Common Myths About Heart Disease

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States. Accounting for over 900 thousand deaths in 2020, heart disease falls under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association projects that more than 130 million U.S. adults will have some type of cardiovascular disease by 2035.1

In 2019, 17.9 million people died from cardiovascular disease, accounting for just under one-third of all global mortality. Of these, 85% were due to heart attacks and strokes.

Heart disease is a serious medical condition, and myths about heart disease are dangerous because they delay lifesaving care for people at risk. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are symptom-free risk factors for heart disease. Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise also affect risk. Reach out to a doctor to have a heart disease risk assessment. Contacting a doctor on the TelegraMD platform for a proper consultation and diagnosis is easy. Once you know your risk, you can take appropriate steps to reduce it.

Cost and inconvenience are two reasons people do not seek the medical care they need. The TelegraMD platform provides 24-hour doctor access, so you can receive care when needed and at a cost that is typically much less than an in-person visit, especially if you do not have insurance. It will take a united effort by primary care centers, telemedicine companies, and pharmacies to mitigate the effects of heart disease myths and reduce the prevalence of heart disease in the United States.

1. Only Older People Suffer from Heart Disease

While heart disease is generally associated with older age, it affects all age groups. After the COVID-19 pandemic, heart-related deaths (excess mortality) increased by nearly 30% in young adults aged 24 to 44.2

Plaque, a waxy substance that accumulates on the inside of blood vessels and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease, accumulates early in life as obesity and type 2 diabetes become more common in younger populations.

Many of the risks for heart disease are modifiable lifestyle factors you can change. If you use tobacco products or vape, recognize that the hundreds of chemicals in these products cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, putting a strain on heart muscle. These chemicals also increase plaque accumulation in blood vessels. Smoking is a significant contributor to heart disease risk.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25% of adults are physically inactive. Several short- and long-term effects of a sedentary lifestyle increase your risk for heart disease. In one study, researchers found that sitting just two hours a day was associated with a 5% increase in cardiovascular disease.3 

Physical activity can help with weight management, control blood cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and lower your risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

2. Heart Disease Is a Men’s Disease

This myth stems from the fact that women have historically been underrepresented in heart disease research. Women account for less than 30% of research participants in heart disease research and studies.4

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women worldwide. In the United States, a woman dies from heart disease every minute. Many women are unaware of their risk of heart disease, and there is a similar lack of awareness of the risk among healthcare providers.4

Women tend to have atypical heart disease symptoms. Common symptoms include back pain, burning in the chest, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and fatigue. Women are also less likely to seek medical care for heart disease and, therefore, are more advanced in their disease when they receive treatment.4

Lipid panel blood tests

3. Fatty Foods Are Always Bad

Fat and cholesterol are both essential for overall health. But not all fats are equally healthy. Choosing a diet rich in healthy sources of fat can reduce your LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase your HDL (good cholesterol). LDL cholesterol increases cholesterol deposits in blood vessels, causing atherosclerosis and increasing your risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. HDL cholesterol removes these cholesterol deposits.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are beneficial to heart health. Common sources of these fats include:

  • Olive, canola, and peanut oils
  • Avocados
  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Tofu

Trans and saturated fats can increase the risk of heart disease, as can highly processed foods. Minimize these foods in your diet:

  • Red meat
  • Organ meats
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Coconut and palm oil
  • Processed foods
  • Fried foods
  • Some margarines
  • Chips
  • Crackers
  • Baked goods
  • Hot dogs, sausages, and bacon
  • Coconut oil
People exercising

4. People With Heart Disease Should Take It Easy

While it is very important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, most people with heart disease will find they have minimal restrictions and that it is beneficial to their heart health to exercise daily.

According to the CDC Guidelines for Physical Activity, all adults should:

  • Do between 150 minutes and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
  • Do between 75 minutes and 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.
  • Do an equivalent combination of vigorous and moderate-intensity exercise.
  • Complete two strength-building sessions per week.

Children and adolescents should be active for at least 60 minutes every day. Regular exercise improves cardiovascular fitness and reduces the risk of many risk factors contributing to heart disease.

5. Active People Don’t Have Heart Attacks

Anyone can have a heart attack. Physical activity and exercise reduce your risk of a heart attack but do not remove the risk. Your heart disease risk profile is a composite of factors you can and cannot change. Some people are very fit and can have an underlying heart condition that increases their risk for heart disease.

To fully understand your heart disease risk profile, it is very important to have routine physical exams and heart disease risk assessments. Make an appointment for a reevaluation if you develop any new symptoms or before you plan to increase the intensity of your exercise program.

6. Medication Is All You Need To Control Heart Disease

Medication is just one aspect of a comprehensive plan for heart disease management. Online prescriptions you may receive after consulting with your doctor can reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol. They may also reduce your risk of blood clots, normalize heart rhythm patterns, and reduce the strain on your heart muscle, but these benefits are substantially increased if you make lifestyle changes that reduce your heart disease risk. There is a strong correlation between obesity and heart disease. After receiving clearance from your doctor, start your heart-healthy exercise program right away.

7. Diabetes Medication Will Prevent Heart Disease

Type 2 diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease. If you have type 2 diabetes and take medications to normalize your blood sugar, it will reduce the risk of heart disease, but many potential risks still remain.

Glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1 RA) and sodium-glucose co-transporter 2 inhibitors (SGLT2i) are used to treat type 2 diabetes and obesity. Based on recent research results, medications in these classes are also used to prevent cardiovascular disease and major cardiovascular events. These medications add a valuable treatment option to a comprehensive heart disease risk reduction plan.5

8. Heart Disease Is Predestined by Family History

A family history of heart disease is a risk factor, but it does not mean that you will have heart disease. Genetic and environmental factors influence heart disease risk. Many people are at increased risk for heart disease because they carry genetic changes that increase their risk, but they are also more proactive in seeking medical care to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Exercising regularly, consuming a heart-healthy diet, reducing stress, getting quality sleep each night, not smoking or vaping, and maintaining a healthy weight can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease.

9. Because High Blood Pressure Is Common, It’s Fine

High blood pressure is common. It is also underdiagnosed and under-treated. Blood pressure is the force your blood puts on the inner walls of your blood vessels. The excessive force from high blood pressure damages the walls of blood vessels, increasing your risk for aortic aneurysms, kidney and heart disease, peripheral artery disease, strokes and heart attacks, and heart failure.

Know your numbers and follow your doctor’s advice on how to use changes in lifestyle and medications to reduce your blood pressure to a healthy range.

10. Heart Attacks Are Always Intense and Sudden

While heart attacks on television and in the movies are often portrayed as the sudden onset of excruciating chest pain and pressure, this is not always the reality, especially for women.6 There is a wide range of symptoms that indicate the heart is not getting enough blood supply, causing a heart attack.

Atypical symptoms can make it difficult for many people to recognize that they are having a heart attack. According to one study, about one in every four people who have had a heart attack had atypical symptoms. These patients are more likely to die within 30 days than patients with more typical heart attack symptoms.

11. You Can’t Reverse the Effects of Long-Term Smoking

You can reverse the effects of long-term smoking. According to the World Health Organization, within 20 minutes after smoking cessation, your heart rate and blood pressure will drop. Over the next 12 hours, carbon monoxide levels in your blood decrease. This will allow your red blood cells to carry more oxygen so that you will feel more energetic. Over the following weeks to months, your lung function will improve, and your risk of chronic diseases will begin to decline.  

12. The Symptoms of Heart Attack Are the Same for Everyone

Atypical symptoms of a heart attack are common. Approximately 85% of women report atypical symptoms when having a heart attack.7 Heart attack risk factors vary across populations.

Some examples of atypical symptoms of a heart attack include:7,8

  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Back pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Light-headedness
a cardiologist showing the parts of a heart

13. Heart Surgery Can Completely Fix Heart Disease

Heart surgery repairs structural problems in the heart. However, in many cases, heart surgery cannot completely restore the heart to an anatomically “perfect” status. After surgery, it is common to have scar tissue and need medications to support heart function.

Heart surgery can improve symptoms and extend and improve quality of life. It can reduce your risk for future heart attacks and improve blood flow to heart muscle. However, managing heart disease typically requires a combination of surgical treatments, medications, and lifestyle changes.

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

References

1. Tomaselli, G. F., Harty, M.-B., Horton, K., & Schoeberl, M. (2011). The American heart association and the million hearts initiative: A presidential advisory from the American heart association. Circulation, 124(16), 1795–1799. https://doi.org/10.1161/cir.0b013e3182327084

2. Yeo, Y. H., Wang, M., He, X., Lv, F., Zhang, Y., Zu, J., Li, M., Jiao, Y., Ebinger, J. E., Patel, J. K., Cheng, S., & Ji, F. (2023). Excess risk for acute myocardial infarction mortality during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Journal of Medical Virology, 95(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.28187

3. de Rezende LF, Rodrigues Lopes M, Rey-López JP, Matsudo VK, Luiz Odo C. Sedentary behavior and health outcomes: an overview of systematic reviews. PLoS One. 2014 Aug 21;9(8):e105620. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105620. PMID: 25144686; PMCID: PMC4140795.

4. Mikhail GW. Coronary heart disease in women. BMJ. 2005 Sep 3;331(7515):467-8. doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7515.467. PMID: 16141136; PMCID: PMC1199011.

5. Brown, J. M., & Everett, B. M. (2019). Cardioprotective diabetes drugs: what cardiologists need to know: What cardiologists need to know. Cardiovascular Endocrinology & Metabolism8(4), 96–105. https://doi.org/10.1097/XCE.0000000000000181

6. Joseph NM, Ramamoorthy L, Satheesh S. Atypical Manifestations of Women Presenting with Myocardial Infarction at Tertiary Health Care Center: An Analytical Study. J Midlife Health. 2021 Jul-Sep;12(3):219-224. doi: 10.4103/jmh.JMH_20_20. Epub 2021 Oct 16. PMID: 34759704; PMCID: PMC8569458.

7. Joseph NM, Ramamoorthy L, Satheesh S. Atypical Manifestations of Women Presenting with Myocardial Infarction at Tertiary Health Care Center: An Analytical Study. J Midlife Health. 2021 Jul-Sep;12(3):219-224. doi: 10.4103/jmh.JMH_20_20. Epub 2021 Oct 16. PMID: 34759704; PMCID: PMC8569458.

8. Khan IA, Karim HMR, Panda CK, Ahmed G, Nayak S. Atypical Presentations of Myocardial Infarction: A Systematic Review of Case Reports. Cureus. 2023 Feb 26;15(2):e35492. doi: 10.7759/cureus.35492. PMID: 36999116; PMCID: PMC10048062.

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