The term “heart disease” (also called cardiovascular disease) describes a range of conditions and diseases that affect the health of your heart. Heart disease encompasses blood vessel disease, such as coronary artery disease, congenital (present at birth) heart defects, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) and heart valve disease.

While heart disease is very common, many aspects are misunderstood. The following are some of the more common misconceptions about the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.

Myth #1: You would know if you had heart disease.

Fact: Heart disease develops over time and can be “silent,” often going undiagnosed until a person experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack. Warning signs and symptoms of heart disease vary by type of heart disease. Here are some of the more common symptoms:

  • Chest pain or pressure (angina)
  • Shortness of breath, including at night, upon waking or during exercise or activity
  • Slow, racing or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting/near fainting
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles or feet

Myth #2: Heart disease only affects older people.

Fact: Heart disease affects people of all ages. While your risk of developing heart disease increases as you age, plaque can begin accumulating in your arteries early in life as a result of smoking, poor eating habits, and lack of exercise and activity. And regardless of lifestyle habits, some individuals may have inherited a gene that predisposes them to developing heart disease.

Myth #3: If you have a family history of heart disease, there’s nothing you can do to lower your chances of developing heart disease.  

Fact: Although people with a family history of heart disease are at higher risk, you can reduce your risk by staying active, eating healthfully, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking and monitoring and managing your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

Myth #4: Congenital heart disease is only diagnosed in infancy or childhood.

Fact: Congenital heart defects, which are heart defects present at birth, may be diagnosed before birth, right after birth, or during childhood or adulthood. Symptoms in adults may include shortness of breath, poor tolerance for exercise and swelling of the hands, ankles or feet. Being told one has a heart murmur could be a sign of congenital heart disease. It is possible, however, to have a congenital heart defect and never experience symptoms or have any notable physical findings.

Myth #5: Only a certain subset of the population is at risk of developing heart disease.

Fact: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors for heart disease—high blood pressure, high cholesterol or smoking. Diabetes and obesity are also key risk factors.

Myth #6: There are warning signs for high blood pressure. 

Fact: High blood pressure is sometimes called the “silent killer” because it usually occurs without causing symptoms. If left untreated, however, high blood pressure can lead to serious health problems, including damage to the heart and coronary arteries, heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney damage. Fortunately, checking your blood pressure is relatively simple. Your primary care physician can advise you on the best way to monitor yours.

Myth #7: You don’t need to worry about getting your cholesterol checked when you’re young. 

Fact: The American Heart Association recommends that all adults ages 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years as long as their risk remains low. People with cardiovascular disease and those at elevated risk may need their cholesterol and other risk factors checked more often. Your primary care doctor can explain what’s right for you and perform the test.

Myth #8: Heart attack is the most common type of heart disease.

Fact: Coronary artery disease (also called coronary heart disease) is the most common form of heart disease and occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart narrow or harden from the build-up of plaque. Coronary artery disease is the most common cause of heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) in both men and women.

Myth #9: Heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure are all the same thing. 

Fact: While these terms are often used interchangeably, they describe different conditions. During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is obstructed, usually by a blood clot or plaque buildup in the arteries. During cardiac arrest, a person’s heart stops beating due to electrical problems in the heart and they lose consciousness. With heart failure, the heart keeps working, but it fails to circulate blood properly, depriving the body of essential blood and oxygen. Heart attack and cardiac arrest happen suddenly and are medical emergencies requiring immediate medical attention. Heart failure occurs gradually, over time.

Myth #10: A heart attack is always preceded or accompanied by chest pain.

Fact: Not necessarily. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary artery disease had no prior symptoms. While some heart attacks cause chest pain or discomfort, sometimes the symptoms are more subtle. You might feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your jaw, neck or back. Or you might feel lightheaded, short of breath or nauseated. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical attention right away.

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