02/27/2015 09:11 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Don't Believe These 5 Heart Health Myths


iStock photo by zaganDesign

As Heart Month wraps up for another year, Dr. Gideon Cohen, a cardiovascular surgeon with Sunnybrook's Schulich Heart Centre, sheds some light on common heart health myths, and shares some tips to help keep your heart healthy and happy for many years to come.

Myth: Only older people are at risk for heart problems

While the risk of heart trouble increases as you get older, a growing number of people are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors at younger ages. Poor lifestyle choices are often to blame, including sedentary living, smoking and unhealthy diets. Both good and bad habits can start at any age, so try and develop the good ones as early as possible.

Myth: I can't exercise because I have heart disease

Even after a heart attack, it's important and safe for most people to return to physical activity. What's important is building an activity plan with your doctor or health care team to ensure you're hitting the right intensity and frequency for you. People with heart disease are actually less likely to suffer a first or recurrent heart attack if they make exercise part of their lives.

Myth: I have a family history of heart trouble, so there's nothing I can do

While you can't change your genes, many lifestyle factors come into play when it comes to your heart health. Some of the best things you can do are to not smoke, eat a balanced diet, control your weight, stay active and keep your stress levels down.

Myth: As long as I exercise and eat well, there's no need to see my doctor

Scheduling periodic health exams with your doctor is important because many heart risks, like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, are only detectable through a physical exam or blood test. Even if you have a healthy lifestyle, these problems can be silently risking your health.

Myth: If I'm having a heart attack, I'll know

The truth is, only about half of heart attacks are actually recognized by the people living through them. That's because not everyone experiences the classic symptoms, which include pain in the chest or left arm and shortness of breath. Studies have found that women especially may experience heart attack differently, with symptoms like heartburn, fatigue, jaw or neck pain, trouble breathing or nausea. Also, people with diabetes are more prone to "silent" heart attacks because the disease tends to impair sensation of the heart.

Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue

All right, so you or a loved one is having those symptoms.  What next?  Dr. Harindra Wijeysundera, an interventional cardiologist at Sunnybrook, says to act immediately. Some patients wait too long because they don't recognize the important signs and symptoms.

Here's what to do if a loved one exhibits the above symptoms:

  • Call 911 for emergency help: If you suspect you're having a heart attack, don't hesitate.  In Toronto, there is a coordinated system between Toronto Paramedics Services and several hospitals to ensure that if you're having the most serious kind of heart attack, called a STEMI, you'll get the care you need very quickly
  • If you have a prescription for nitroglycerin, take it while awaiting emergency help
  • Take aspirin, if your doctor or the paramedics recommend it


Infographic by Sunnybrook

Coauthored by Monica Matys, Communications Advisor and Marie Sanderson, Senior Communications Advisor, at Sunnybrook.


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