6 Myths About Heart Disease Too Many People Still Believe


Heart Disease

Cancer might strike fear in your heart, but you’re more likely to develop heart disease than you are cancer. When it comes to what adults die of, heart disease and stroke top the list. In fact, cardiovascular disease (including atherosclerotic heart disease and strokes) dwarfs all other causes of death, claiming the lives of over 670,000 people each year.

Given how common heart disease and strokes are, it’s no surprise that there are misconceptions about this life-shortening but treatable health issue. Let’s take a closer look at six prevalent myths with the most up-to-date facts and information from medical experts.

Myth #1: Heart disease only affects older people.

Fact: It’s true that age is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but both can occur at any age. About 10% of heart attacks occur in people under age 45, many of whom are seemingly healthy with few obvious risk factors. Yet there are subtle risk factors that people know about. For example, women who take oral contraceptives or smoke cigarettes are at higher risk of blood clots that lead to strokes and heart attacks.

Genetics are another factor that boosts the risk of heart attacks at a younger age. Genetic predispositions to high cholesterol or hypertension speed up atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaque in blood vessels) from an early age. That’s why knowing your family history is critical. If you have a first-degree male relative (sibling or parent) who had a heart attack or stroke before fifty-five or a female relative who had one before age sixty-five, you may be a higher risk yourself due to family history. If you have more than one relative who meets this criterion, the risk is even greater.

Blood lipids are a factor too. If you have a markedly elevated LDL-cholesterol, you may also have a gene for a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, which, without treatment, creates a significant risk for heart attack or stroke before age 50. Uncontrolled hypertension is another risk factor that has a genetic component.

However, having a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean you will develop cardiovascular disease. Making healthy lifestyle choices is especially important for those with genetic risk factors. Committing to healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk, even If one or more of your close relatives was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

Myth #2 Taking fish oil supplements prevents heart disease.

Fact: While eating fatty fish such as salmon and trout 1-2 times per week provides cardiovascular benefits, the evidence isn’t strong that taking fish oil in supplement form has the same benefit. Their effect on heart rhythm, cholesterol levels, and plaque buildup remains inconclusive. Some research shows modest benefits while a few shows harm. This includes an increased risk of developing an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation among people who take fish oil supplements.

The take home message? Don’t use supplements as a replacement for lifestyle measures like diet, exercise, and medication adherence. And always talk to your physician before taking omega-3s in supplement form. They can interfere with some medications, particularly blood thinners.

Myth #3: Heart failure means the heart has stopped working.

Fact: It shouldn’t be surprising that people see the word “failure” and believe heart failure means your heart no longer works. But what it really means is your heart muscle has become weaker and less efficient at pumping blood and oxygen. It doesn’t mean your heart gives out and can’t perform at all. Various medications can improve heart function and manage symptoms for decades. Plus, lifestyle practices, like a low-sodium diet, can help treat the symptoms.

Myth #4: People with heart disease should avoid exercise.

Fact: This outdated advice made sense decades ago when heart disease often progressed rapidly after diagnosis and there was less awareness of how to treat and prevent it. Today, most people with stable heart disease can safely do aerobic exercise and resistance or flexibility training. Exercise builds stamina, strengthens the heart muscle, reduces inflammation, and can give your mental health a boost. But if you have cardiovascular disease or heart disease of any type, you should talk to your healthcare team about what types of exercise are suitable based on your history.

Myth #5: Heart attacks always cause severe chest pain.

Fact: What comes to mind when you think of a heart attack? In your mind’s eye, you might envision someone holding their chest with sweat rolling off their forehead as they struggle to breathe. While chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating may occur when there’s reduced blood flow to the heart, over 40% of heart attacks don’t involve chest pain.

Women especially may experience more subtle symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, and back or jaw pain. Arm pain and overall “feeling unwell” are other symptoms that people, including healthcare providers, sometimes overlook as unrelated to the heart. Don’t wait to call 911 if you suspect you or someone else is having a heart attack, even without severe chest pain.

Myth #6: Diabetes won’t harm your heart if controlled.

Fact: Even when you manage your blood sugars through medication, diet, and exercise, your risk of heart attack or stroke isn’t zero. Diabetes accelerates atherosclerosis. making it a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Diabetes also compounds the risk by interacting with other factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol. Aggressively controlling these risk factors with your doctor’s oversight remains crucial, improving outcomes more than tight blood sugar control alone.

Lifestyle Factors to Lower Your Risk

Sources say that around 80% of cardiovascular risk is due to lifestyle and environmental exposures rather than genetics. So, lifestyle matters for the health of your heart and blood vessels. Here are lifestyle factors that science shows can lower your risk:

  • Adopt a Mediterranean diet or DASH diet.
  • Make time for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity.
  • Work your muscles against resistance at least twice per week.
  • Stay a healthy weight and waist size.
  • Don’t smoke and if you do quit.
  • Limit alcohol consumption (or avoid it entirely)
  • Manage stress.
  • Prioritize high quality sleep (7-8 hours nightly)
  • Control conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Collaborate with your doctor to keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar in healthy ranges.

Don’t Fall for Myths about Heart Disease

In summary, these myths and others cause confusion and complacency regarding heart health. While there’s still much to learn, preventable risk factors are the cause of most cardiovascular disease. So, lifestyle can help you lower your risk. Consult your doctor regularly for screenings and advice, even if you don’t have symptoms. Combining medical care with healthy lifestyle choices offers the best defense regardless of your age or genetics. Don’t take heart health for granted. Show this vital organ the respect it disturbs.


  • “Women and Heart Disease | cdc.gov.” gov/heartdisease/women.htm.
  • “Heart disease and women | Office on Women’s Health.” womenshealth.gov/heart-disease-and-stroke/heart-disease/heart-disease-and-women.
  • Elagizi A, Lavie CJ, O’Keefe E, Marshall K, O’Keefe JH, Milani RV. An Update on Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 12;13(1):204. doi: 10.3390/nu13010204. PMID: 33445534; PMCID: PMC7827286.
  • “Omega-3 fatty acids and the heart: New evidence, more questions.” harvard.edu/blog/omega-3-fatty-acids-and-the-heart-new-evidence-more-questions-2021032422213.
  • “Diabetes and Your Heart | CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-heart.html.
  • org. “Fish Oil Supplements Linked with Heart Rhythm Disorder,” 2021 https://www.escardio.org/The-ESC/Press-Office/Press-releases/fish-oil-supplements-linked-with-heart-rhythm-disorder.
  • “Heart Failure: Understanding the condition and … – Harvard Health.” health.harvard.edu/promotions/harvard-health-publications/diagnosis-heart-failure.
  • “Angina (Chest Pain) | American Heart Association.” org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/angina-chest-pain.
  • heart.org. “Environment, Culture, Other Social Determinants Play Big Role in Heart Health,” March 21, 2019. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/03/21/environment-culture-other-social-determinants-play-big-role-in-heart-health.

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