We sat down with Patricia Guerrero, MD, Cardiologist, to talk about heart health myths she has heard through 15 years of practicing medicine. Read on for tips to avoid them.
MYTH 1: “VITAMINS WILL PROTECT ME.”
Many patients believe they can eat anything if they take supplements. While some are helpful, supplements— including vitamins C and E and folic acid — aren’t proven to prevent heart disease. And some “all-natural, herbal heart-health” supplements are just hype. Garlic capsules won’t lower your blood pressure unless the ensuing bad breath keeps away those who cause your greatest stress. Instead, aim for five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. And fish is your friend. “We still believe omega-3 fatty acids containing fish may offer some protection against heart disease, though,” says Dr. Guerrero. “High-risk women should continue to eat oily fish, such as salmon, at least three times a week rather than taking supplements.”
MYTH 2: “A FEW EXTRA POUNDS CAN’T HURT.”
Frequently, patients 10 or 20 pounds heavier than they should be don’t view themselves as overweight. But losing a few pounds reduces abdominal fat, a major source of potentially damaging inflammatory chemicals. Extra weight also taxes your heart by elevating blood pressure, raising LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lowering HDL cholesterol. Lowering your body weight by just 10 percent can bring down blood pressure and reduce your diabetes risk. And remember, women with diabetes have more than double the risk of heart attack than non-diabetic women. Additionally, diabetes doubles the risk of a second heart attack in women but not in men.
MYTH 3: “I ONLY NEED TO WORRY ABOUT ‘BAD’ CHOLESTEROL.”
When it comes to reducing plaque, raising HDL (good) cholesterol is as crucial as lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. In fact, Dr. Guerrero says, “every 1 percent increase in HDL carries a 2 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack.” HDL acts as a scavenger, picking up excess cholesterol in your blood and taking it back to your liver where it’s broken down. The higher your HDL level, the less “bad” cholesterol you have. Lifestyle changes work best to improve these levels naturally.
MYTH 4: “AN ASPIRIN A DAY KEEPS THE CARDIOLOGIST AWAY.”
If you’re over 65, aspirin may be helpful because it thins the blood, lowering your risk of clots. But there’s no evidence it prevents heart attacks in those under 65. And it can exacerbate stomach problems, causing potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding in younger women.
MYTH 5: “GETTING THE MAIL COUNTS AS EXERCISE, RIGHT?”
The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. Trying to lose or maintain your weight? Then increase it to 60 to 90 minutes. This is especially important around menopause because hormonal shifts make weight loss more difficult just when staying lean becomes crucial for heart protection. Regular, moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, can help lower bad cholesterol while improving good cholesterol as well.
MYTH 6: “MY BODY MASS INDEX IS NORMAL, SO I DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT MY HEART.”
BMI doesn’t distinguish between fat, muscle, and bone, so it’s not a good heart health indicator on its own. Pay attention to your waistline too. “Excess fat in the abdomen tends to be closely linked to higher CRP [a marker of inflammation],” cautions Dr. Guerrero. A large waist or an apple-shaped body can spell particular trouble. “If your waist circumference is over 35 inches and you have triglycerides levels above 150, you are at nearly five times greater risk of dying from heart disease,” she warns.
MYTH 7: “I PASSED MY ANGIOGRAM, SO MY HEART MUST BE HEALTHY.”
This imaging test, which uses X-rays to examine blood vessels, is better suited to men. Women have narrower arteries and tend to have plaque distributed evenly throughout artery walls, says Dr. Guerrero. “Men tend to develop plaque in a clump in one location, which is easier to detect on X-rays,” she explains. A study at the National Institutes of Health estimated that as many as 3 million women whose angiograms indicated they had healthy arteries could have hidden problems.