In honor of February’s American Heart Month, cardiologists from UConn Health’s Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center are busting the most common cardiovascular health myths. Their hope is to raise awareness of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans, and share the top ways you can prevent the disease or avoid experiencing a potentially deadly or debilitating cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Myth 1. I am skinny, so I don’t need to exercise.
Thin people are not immune from developing serious heart problems. Even though obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, people with optimal weight can still suffer from heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. Exercise helps to reduce diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol – risk factors that lead to heart disease down the line. Also, exercise has been known to reduce anxiety and depression. People who exercise regularly tend to be happier and healthier, even if they have always been thin.
– Dr. Joyce Meng, assistant professor of medicine and co-director of Clinical Non-Invasive Cardiac Imaging
Myth 2. Women are protected from heart attacks and thus can pay less attention to prevention.
Unfortunately, in spite of significant advances in the treatment and prevention of heart attacks, they remain the number one killer of women in the United States. Women are often older and have a greater burden of risk factors by the time they first present with a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms may not be as typical in women as in men, and may be more likely to go unrecognized. Therapies for prevention of heart attacks, including aspirin after a first heart attack, cholesterol-lowering medications, and other protective therapies are effective in women. And invasive therapies are similarly effective in women and men with heart attacks. Invasive therapies may have a somewhat increased risk in women, at least in part because of the higher average age, and additional medical conditions. But the balance of benefit versus risk for invasive therapies for women remains supportive of the use of the same therapies in both men and women. Improved prevention, enhanced therapies, and increased recognition will all hopefully help to topple heart disease from its position as the number one killer of women.
– Dr. Michael Azrin, director, Interventional Cardiology and Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory
Myth 3. Eating eggs every day isn’t good for me and will raise my cholesterol.
Eggs are a great source of nutrition. Packed into those 77 calories are 5 grams of healthy fats and 6 grams of protein. There are virtually no carbs in eggs. It is true that eggs contain over 200 mg of cholesterol, but for the vast majority of us, an egg has little effect on our cholesterol levels and can even raise the “good” HDL cholesterol. A breakfast that contains eggs instead of muffins or bagels can help us lose weight and lower our overall risk of a cardiovascular event such as a stroke or heart attack. In addition, an egg contains many required micronutrients such as selenium, vitamin B12, and folate that are important components of a healthy diet. So go ahead. Enjoy your eggs in the morning.
– Dr. Peter Schulman, professor of medicine
Myth 4. Running and intense exercise is best for optimal heart health.
The most important thing about exercise is assessing the risk/benefit. High intensity does increase cardiovascular fitness; however, it slightly increases the risk of sudden cardiac death, but this is still significantly less than in non-exercisers. Also, you should always consider the risk of injury and noncompliance. If you increase your risk four times more with jogging than walking, and don’t get any significant benefit by reducing your cardiovascular risk, is it worth it? The most important issue when I set up an exercise prescription for my patients is, are they going to be able to keep doing this type of exercise on a regular basis? I want them to be able to enjoy their movement/exercise, so I make sure it is customized for them to get the most benefit. If walking can lower my risk of heart disease 40-50 percent and I won’t get hurt, plus I enjoy it — that is the ideal exercise.
– Brad Biskup, P.A., coordinator, Lifestyle Medicine Clinic
Myth 5. I feel fine today, I don’t need to take my prescribed heart medications.
When we feel good, it’s natural to think we no longer need our medicines. But stopping your prescribed heart medications can make you feel tired, short of breath, or even sick enough to be in the hospital. When it comes to heart disease, our medicines are often the thing that keeps us feeling good. Talk to your doctor before ever stopping a medication, and take your prescribed medicines every day, even when you’re feeling great.
–Dr. Jason Ryan, director, Heart Failure Center
Myth 6. My blood pressure is sometimes a little high, but I am healthy and do not need to control my blood pressure.
We don’t want to scare you, but this is a very problematic myth. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the leading cause of attributable death in the world. The problem with hypertension is that for most people it is asymptomatic and people feel just fine – however, silently elevated blood pressure does its damage to one’s arteries, heart, brain, and kidneys. The results later in life can be devastating, causing heart and kidney failure, stroke, and premature death. So I would strongly advocate that you keep your blood pressure under control – that is less than 130/80 mmHg.
– Dr. William B. White, chief, Division of Hypertension and Clinical Pharmacology and professor of medicine
Myth 7. I am not super overweight or obese, so I don’t need to watch what I eat.
Regardless of your body weight, what you eat makes a big difference for your health. To stay healthy and prevent heart disease, you want to eat a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and good sources of protein, such as nuts and legumes, eggs, poultry, and fish. You want to choose nutrient-rich foods that are high in minerals, vitamins, and dietary fiber, and low in calories. Omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides, are found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and herring, and in other sources such as flax seed, walnuts, and soybeans. Try to limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets, and sugary beverages. For those people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, it is recommended that they consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
– Dr. Agnes Kim, director, Non-Invasive Cardiac Imaging and Echocardiography Lab, the Cardio-Oncology Program, and assistant professor of medicine
Myth 8. I smoke or vape, but I eat healthy and exercise so I am okay.
There are many risk factors for heart disease including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and your lifestyle. Each factor independently contributes to the disease development. While healthy diet and regular exercise help cut your chances of getting heart disease, smoking remains one of the most dangerous factors. Smoking can cause buildup of fatty material called plaque inside your arteries which can lead to heart attack and sudden death. Of importance, both cigarettes and vapors contain similar amounts of nicotine – the chemical that is most harmful to the cardiovascular system. Quitting smoking will reduce your risk by more than 50 percent.
– Dr. Kai Chen, assistant professor of medicine
Myth 9. I consume alcohol every day in hopes of keeping my heart healthy.
The effects of alcohol consumption on heart health are variable. The good news – drinking in moderation, which is defined as no more than 1-2 beverages per day for men and one per day for women, likely reduces your risk of having a heart attack by about 25 percent. However, alcohol can increase your blood pressure, which can lead to problems such as stroke and heart failure. Alcohol also plays a significant role in electrical problems of the heart called arrhythmias. It is well recognized that binge drinking significantly increases the risk of developing the most common arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, which can be a dangerous condition, primarily due to the associated risk of stroke. This relationship between heavy alcohol use and the development of atrial fibrillation is referred to as “Holiday Heart.” There is no clear evidence that any one type of alcohol is better or worse for your heart than other types of alcohol.
– Dr. Christopher Pickett, co-director, Heart Rhythm Center
Myth 10. My children are overweight but they are young so we don’t have to worry about heart disease risks yet.
Healthy habits such as a heart-healthy diet and staying active are cultivated in the family starting at a young age. Newer evidence shows that almost half of people who are obese in childhood grow up to suffer from obesity as adults. Obesity in adulthood is clearly linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Parents can focus on encouraging their children to make healthy food choices and get regular physical activity by limiting screen time and supporting involvement in sports.
–Dr. Sara Tabtabai, cardiologist at the Heart Failure Center and assistant professor of medicine