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Myth busting heart disease for Gen Xers

We have all seen the commercials for medications designed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Happy, silver-haired couples walking near a lake, or playing with their grandchildren. If you can’t fast-forward through the commercial, you may think, “I don’t have to worry about heart disease, because I am still young and healthy, feel great and don’t have a heart problem.” Studies have shown that even when you’re just a teenager, feel great and don’t have any cardiac diagnosis, fat can start to deposit in your blood vessel walls, heart and throughout your body.

Most young people don’t think about heart disease, or if they do, they have the wrong impression that it is out of their control. Here are three common myths young people have about heart disease, and what you can do now, to avoid trouble later:

Myth #1: Heart disease happens overnight.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is caused by the narrowing of the coronary arteries due to fatty buildup of plaque, which happens over time. When plaque and fatty matter narrow the inside of the coronary artery to a point where it cannot supply enough blood (or oxygen) to meet the heart muscle’s needs, this can result in chest pain, also called angina pectoris.

Myth #2: Heart attacks hurt.

With a heart attack, the arteries narrow until they become completely blocked. This can cause chest heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, numbness, fullness, squeezing or pain. It is usually felt in the chest, but may also be felt in the left shoulder, arms, neck, back or jaw. These symptoms can manifest differently, or not at all in women and/or people with diabetes.

Myth #3: You can’t outrun heart disease if it’s in your genes.

It is true that your risk for heart disease is much higher if you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, sister or brother) who developed CHD before the age of 65, but there are so many things you can do to lessen your risk!

Here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t smoke. Smokers are two to three times more likely to die of a heart attack than non-smokers. According to the CDC, nearly nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first try smoking by age 18, and 98% first try smoking by age 26.
  • Stay active. Play a sport or exercise so that you maintain mild shortness of breath for 20 minutes a day, five days a week; 40 minutes, four days a week; or for one hour a day, three days a week.
  • Avoid high blood pressure. Stay away from salty foods, stay active and keep your weight down.
  • Lower your cholesterol and eat healthier meals. Consider a plant-based diet as well as portion control. Limit your animal fat content to 6% (or less) per day. This means enjoying red meat, dairy products and fried foods only in moderation.
  • Keep your weight down.  Choose water over soda, practice portion control with healthy dietary choices, avoid eating late at night and stay active.

CHD is the number one cause of death in America, affecting more than 15 million Americans. If you are younger than 55, evaluate your risk with your doctor. If your parents, aunts or uncles are still living, and they suffer from high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, ask them their numbers. Then find out yours!

Remember that patients who suffer from CHD often wish they could turn back time. Anyone, whether they are “young and healthy” or already have a cardiac diagnosis, can improve their quality and quantity of life with some easy lifestyle choices. Your future is in YOUR hands!