Your doctor has diagnosed you with heart disease, so you’re filling your grocery cart with no-fat options. Or maybe you’re in your 30s, and heart disease isn’t something you worry about. But how much do you really know about heart health?
Heart disease affects millions of Canadians. The Ottawa-based Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada reports that a person in Canada dies every five minutes from heart conditions, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment.
But learning more about heart disease can help you know how to protect your heart health.
For Heart Health Month, in partnership with Webber Naturals, a Canadian brand of vitamins and nutritional supplements, we asked experts to help sort what’s fact and what’s fiction behind some of the most common heart-health myths.
Myth 1: If you have heart disease, you should eat as little fat as possible
This is true for trans fats, the kind found in deep-fried foods as well as many packaged and processed foods.
Some fats, however, can be good for your health. Monounsaturated fats — found in olive oil, avocados and some nuts, including almonds, pistachios and cashews — help improve blood cholesterol levels. And polyunsaturated fats, found in fish as well as some nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flaxseeds, can also help lower the risk of stroke.
While nutritional sources are the best way to get healthy fats, you could turn to supplements to help. “Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats. They have a blood-pressure-lowering effect, and they’re important for the health of our cell membranes. Fish-oil supplements have been shown to help lower your triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood,” says Kristin Metvedt, a registered holistic nutritionist.
Myth 2: If you have no symptoms, you’re okay
“Some of the symptoms of heart disease are silent,” says Dr. Joyce Johnson, a naturopathic doctor. You don’t always feel high blood pressure, for example.
Symptoms also manifest differently in men and women, and could be mistaken for signs of other conditions. “Women tend to not have the same symptoms, such as the crushing chest pain often exhibited in men. Women sometimes have more vague symptoms,” Johnson says.
For men, signs of heart disease can include discomfort or pain in the chest, dizziness and pain in other parts of the body above the waist, including the left arm. For women, signs can include shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Myth 3: Heart disease is really a man’s problem
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, heart disease and stroke kill more than seven times as many Canadian women as breast cancer. “After menopause, our risk for heart disease increases because we don’t have the amounts of estrogen we used to. Estrogen is heart protective,” Johnson says.
That hormonal change may lead to higher heart-disease risk factors in women, such as increased body fat above the waist, an increase in LDL (so-called bad cholesterol), a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol) and higher blood pressure.
Metvedt says that a supplement such as coenzyme Q10 could be worth considering. “It’s an important nutrient for your heart muscle,” she explains. CoQ10 is an antioxidant that may help lower blood pressure in some people. Taking magnesium supplements can also help support proper muscle function, including that of the heart muscle, Metvedt says.
Myth 4: Heart disease only happens to older people
“Heart conditions can affect you any time,” Johnson says, adding that the prevalence of heart conditions and heart attacks at a younger age is increasing.
If you are in a younger age bracket, now is the time to get heart-healthy habits in place, including eating a varied diet with healthy fats, fibre and colourful produce; increasing your physical activity (the Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week); and stopping smoking or vaping.
“The healthy habits we develop when we’re young set us up for keeping a healthy heart when we’re older,” Metvedt says.
Myth 5: You can’t die of a broken heart
Heard the story of the elderly couple who died within days of each other? Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TTC), also known as “broken heart syndrome,” does temporarily affect the ability of the heart to pump efficiently.
When it happens, it can cause the same symptoms as those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath.
While this condition is commonly associated with losing a loved one, severe emotions or stress may also trigger it. “It’s important to make sure you have coping mechanisms to manage your stress day to day, because it gives you tools,” Johnson says. She suggests activities like journaling, yoga and deep breathing, along with proper sleep, to help manage it.