Dis–ease of the heart. When one thinks of dis–ease of the heart, a lot can come to mind. It can be scary. It can mean heartbreak. It can mean pain. In this case, it means cardiovascular disease.  

February is American Heart Month, reminding us to do all we can to stay conscious of our heart health.

Over the last decade, there have been leaps and bounds of knowledge acquired about what causes cardiovascular disease. Most of which is very different from what people believed even as little as 20 years ago.   

From monitoring blood pressure to holding the hand of a loved one as they are told that they need bypass surgery, it is crucial to be aware of the myths and realities surrounding heart disease, and what you can do to prevent dis–ease of the heart. 

Myth 1: High blood pressure is expected with age.

Reality:Any person at any age can have high blood pressure.

“This myth has never been true, but we used to think it was,” said Dr. W. Ross Davis, Fellow of the American College of Cardiology. “The old rule of thumb was age plus 100 equals systolic pressure, and that would be OK. It turns out since they have done studies on it, we’ve learned that any systolic pressure that is elevated is worse in older people than it is in younger people. Somewhere in our 40s or 50s, the focus on controlling the diastolic pressure switches to controlling the systolic pressure. We do not like seeing systolic pressure above 140, no matter how old you are.”

What you can do: Dr. Kevin Sublett, MD, FACC, said, “Get moving. Walk. Park your car out at the edge of the parking lot every time you go somewhere and get those steps in. You can also lower your stress levels. If you feel yourself becoming stressed out, try something to reduce the stress, such as yoga or meditation.”

Myth 2: Cholesterol can be contained with diet and exercise only.

Reality: According to Dr. Brian Foley, FACC, “High cholesterol calls for treatment. Only one in six people make it to age 70 without needing some form of preventative care or treatment for their cholesterol. Diet and exercise are to be included in the treatment; however, only about 25% of a person’s diet is dietary, hence the need for cholesterol-lowering medicine.”

What you can do: Choose high-quality, healthy foods, such as a Mediterranean–style diet, and minimize low-quality foods. Do some form of exercise 25 to 30 minutes a day – that equals 300 minutes a week – and take your medicine, said Sublett.

Myth 3: Heart Disease is only a man's problem.

Reality: “The No. 1 killer in post-menopausal women is heart disease,” said Foley. “Fifty percent of women in this category die or have heart disease because the production of estrogen begins to slow after menopause. In young women, estrogen acts as a cholesterol barrier and protects the veins from massive buildup. After menopause, the ovaries shut down the estrogen supply and there is an acceleration of cholesterol buildup that begins to happen. This buildup causes cardiovascular disease.”

What you can do: “The best answer here is a preventative treatment,” said Foley. “If there is heart disease in the family history, start treating as soon as possible.”

He also suggests having a coronary calcium score done every 10 years. If the score is above 0 then preventative treatment needs to be started immediately.

Myth 4: If someone has diabetes, they do not need to worry about cardiovascular disease.

Reality: “Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are directly related,” said Davis. "High blood sugar affects the microvascular system in the body, which affects the heart and blood vessels. If these vessels become clogged, it can lead to a heart attack, stroke or even death.

“Diabetics have a higher risk of developing all types of heart disease, from heart muscle disease to coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease. Diabetes directly affects the vascular disease, and glycemic control makes it better.”

What you can do: As a diabetic, take your medicine regularly and as prescribed. Pay attention to your blood pressure and keep it in check. Those at risk should also make lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and making the switch to natural, organic foods.

Myth 5: If I quit smoking, it will not change anything. I am still bound to have cardiovascular disease.

Reality: According to Sublett, “Smoking is an ongoing irritant, which continuously inflames the tissues of the microvascular system within the heart. Because there are so many tiny vessels, they actually make up a larger degree of the blood supply to the heart than the big vessels. If these vessels are inflamed because of smoking and impaired due to cholesterol, then they will not function properly. Smoking also increases the tendency for clots to form. It is a double whammy.”

Foley said, “So, when someone quits smoking, the irritation in the vessels begins to dissipate, and within a month or two, the past smoker is way better off than they were while smoking. Now, if someone has smoked for 30 years, they have done a lot of damage. Quitting will not reverse the damage, but it will drastically reduce any chance of the inflammation becoming worse.”

What you can do: Stop smoking to reduce inflammation, and consume a healthy, natural diet.

“One of the things that a healthy, natural diet does is increases the levels of nitric oxide in the blood vessels so that they are more elastic. They function better. They open and close when they need to," Sublett said.

Myth 6: A minor heart attack is no big deal.

Reality: Even a small heart attack can be fatal.

“Most people who die of heart disease die because an injured muscle is dying, and they have not been taking preventative care,” said Foley. “The heart will develop an arrhythmia when the muscle becomes weak or damaged. The arrhythmia causes the heart to stop. In some cases, it may never start again. That seems like a pretty big deal.”

What you can do: Maintain a healthy stress level. High-stress situations put pressure on the heart and can cause rhythm problems. Avoid over–the–counter medications that can potentially speed up the heart. Maintain a heart-healthy diet and exercise regime, especially for those who are diabetic. Limit caffeine intake and alcohol, and of course, do not smoke.

Myth 7: Heart disease means take it easy.

Reality: “Exercise is part of treatment for virtually every type of cardiovascular problem from coronary artery disease to heart failure. Even if someone’s heart does not function very well at all, they can condition the rest of their body with expeditious exercises to whatever their limit is, and it will actually help them feel better,” said Davis.

What you can do: Exercise at your comfort level. Get up and move your body. 

“Russell Medical has a rehabilitation program for cardiac patients that will have them back to their baseline or better by the time they graduate,” said Davis. “Cardio and aerobic exercises are good. Lifting weights is OK, but we suggest to our patients that they refrain from powerlifting.”

Myth 8: Strokes happen in the brain and not the heart, so I do not have cardiovascular disease.

Reality: “A stroke is in the brain, but there are several conditions from the heart that can contribute to having a stroke, such as atrial fibrillation, or arrhythmia, lack of blood flow to the brain, which is a cardiopulmonary arrest, or even clots and tumors that form in the heart and go to the brain can cause a stroke, among many more,” said Sublett.

What you can do: Maintain healthy blood pressure; lose weight if you are obese; exercise more; and take your preventative medications. Refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Learn the symptoms of a stroke. 

“The best thing someone can do to prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke or high cholesterol is prevention, prevention, prevention,” said Foley.