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Common misconceptions about the #1 killer in the U.S.

| Heart Health | Healthy You | Aging Well

Young person paints heart on cheek of older person

Heart disease causes 1 in 4 deaths nationwide. Here’s what you need to know to protect your heart.

Heart disease is tragically common in the United States and around the world, possibly because not everyone fully understands their risks and what they can do to improve their heart health.

Here are some common misconceptions about this #1 killer of Americans:

Misconception #1 – Heart disease affects only “older” people.

While people over the age of 65 are at the highest risk, younger people are having heart attacks more frequently as well. According to the American College of Cardiology, 1 in every 5 heart attacks happens to someone 40 years of age or younger.

It should also be noted that heart disease usually begins early and develops over time. So what you do in your younger years can greatly impact your risk for heart disease down the road.

“Clogged arteries don’t happen overnight. Bad habits over many years or decades can lead to heart disease," said Richard Padgett, MD, FACC and PeaceHealth System Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services. “If you take your heart health seriously as a young person, there’s a good chance you can prevent the disease.”

Misconception #2 – Heart disease affects mostly men.

Heart disease doesn’t discriminate by gender. In fact, it’s the leading cause of death in men as well as women in the United States.

According to the CDC, heart disease killed 299,578 women in 2017—or about 1 in every 5 female deaths.  (Heart disease killed 357,761 men in 2019—about 1 in every 4 male deaths.)

Misconception #3 – Heart disease is inevitable since it runs in my family.

Genetics can’t be modified, but risk factors tied to lifestyle absolutely can be.

“There are several things you can do to lower your risk of heart disease,” Dr. Padgett said.

The American Heart Association recommends:

  • Regular exercise three to four times a week. Moderate to vigorous exercise—the kind that raises your heart rate and works up a sweat—will help strengthen your heart muscle.
  • Not smoking.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.

These are positive habits for everyone, but especially for those with a family history of heart disease.

Misconception #4 – Heart disease doesn’t run in my family so I don’t have to worry.

There are many concerns tied to lifestyle that can absolutely raise your risk for heart disease.

Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can all contribute to the development of heart disease.

If you have any or all of these, you will want to actively manage those conditions and remain vigilant about day-to-day habits that will help your heart.

Misconception #5 – I will know if I have heart disease.

Experts note that half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.

High blood pressure--one big risk factor of heart disease—often doesn't come with symptoms or warning signs. That's why it is called the “silent killer” because you don't usually know until it’s too late.

“As a doctor, I want people to see heart disease for what it is—a condition that can keep you or your loved ones from living long and well,” said Dr. Padgett. “What I’ve seen in my practice is that patients who understand the risks and take active measures to reduce their risk have a much better chance to beat the odds.”

Schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss your risk, and what you should do to prevent heart disease based on your unique situation.