You want to live your heart-healthiest, but how do you do that? There is a lot of opinions, and even myths, floating around out there on what you should and should not be doing to maintain your heart health.
Let us do a little heart health “myth busting” and set the record straight on six common misconceptions about what to do, what to eat and when to ensure you are taking the right steps for your heart health.
Myth #1: You should not drink alcohol if you have a pacemaker
Generally, anyone with a pacemaker or other implantable cardiovascular device can still drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol consumption will not affect the device, but it does affect your heart. That is why it is important to stress “in moderation” when it comes to alcohol consumption, which means no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for a man and no more than one for a woman. But if even a moderate amount of alcohol causes discomfort in your chest, a feeling of your heart racing, or “inappropriate shocks” from your device, it’s best to cut back or abstain from alcohol altogether.
Drinking in moderation is in line with having a heart healthy diet, whether you have a pacemaker or not. In fact, moderate use of alcohol has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol, known as the “good” cholesterol. However, overindulgence can have the opposite effect.
Research from the National Institutes of Health has found that long-term heavy drinking and even “acute alcohol misuse,” like binge drinking, can cause a host of cardiovascular issues, including hypertension, alcohol-associated cardiomyopathy (a weakened heart muscle), and arrhythmia—irregular heartbeat which can lead to the need for a pacemaker.
Myth #2: You do not have to worry about heart disease if you are young
It is a long-held myth that heart disease is an “old person’s disease.” The truth is, cardiovascular diseases can affect anyone. In fact, one in three cardiovascular disease deaths occur in people under the age of 70.
Younger populations can actually be more vulnerable to certain types of heart diseases. Rheumatic heart disease, caused by rheumatic fever, mostly affects children in developing countries and accounts for roughly 2% of global cardiovascular disease deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Congenital heart disease is present at birth, with eight out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. being diagnosed, according to the Mayo Clinic. This form of heart “disease” is more commonly known as heart defect and includes a number of issues or syndromes that affect the structure and functionality of the heart. While these are usually detected at birth or even in utero, many don’t become detectable or even diagnosed until years down the road, especially for children born in developing countries.
Christine Bocus was diagnosed with a third degree heart blockage at age 14 and required a pacemaker to help regulate her heartbeat. Arturo Seguro’s life-threatening heart condition was detected when he was three years old, and at the age of seven, he received his first pacemaker.
All the more reason why every person should pay attention to their heart health, regardless of age. And the sooner you start living a heart-healthy lifestyle, the better your chances for lowering your risks of developing heart disease.
Myth #3: You should focus on raising your HDL (“good”) cholesterol level for optimal heart health
Cholesterol is a natural part of your body, a building-block of your cells and produced by the liver. The cholesterol you ingest through food actually causes your liver to produce more cholesterol, releasing it into your bloodstream in the form of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). That LDL cholesterol can build up on the walls of your blood vessels, forming the clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke. But HDL cholesterol can actually pick up that excess cholesterol buildup and take it back to your liver to break it down.
So, it makes sense that you would want more HDL (“good”) than LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, right? Unfortunately, it is not a simple case of the “good” outweighing the “bad.” As researchers at the American Heart Association put it, “HDL can only help in the fight, not win it.”
Your focus should be on lowering your LDL cholesterol to have as little of the “bad” kind as possible. Ultimately, lowering LDL cholesterol is what lowers cardiovascular risks.
The best way to win the fight is with your dietary cholesterol–watching what you eat to avoid foods that can increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels. Saturated fats and trans fats are two of the biggest culprits, and overindulging in foods heavy in these fats can increase your risks for heart disease.
Myth #4: All fats are bad for your heart
Recommendations to follow a “low fat diet” have led to the belief that “all fat is bad fat.” That is not the case. The focus of a low fat diet should be on lowering your intake of saturated fat, which can raise LDL cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease.
Foods high in saturated fat include fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils like coconut and palm oils, as well as processed meat, packaged foods, fried foods, and cookies and pastries prepared with shortening. This last group also contains trans fats, which also increase LDL cholesterol while lowering HDL cholesterol.
In limiting your intake of saturated fats, the latest recommendation is to consider the food source. While processed and fried foods mostly just give you unhealthy fat and empty calories, those full-fat dairy foods (yogurt, milk, cheese) are also excellent sources of protein, calcium, vitamin K2 and probiotics—all nutrients your body needs.
If saturated fat is the “bad” fat you want to limit in your diet, unsaturated fat is the “good” fat you want to add to your diet. Healthy high-fat foods like olives, extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna) are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These are the fats that help to decrease inflammation, blood triglyceride levels, and LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
Research from the American Heart Association has found that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can decrease the risk of heart disease. For your long term heart health, rethink your “low fat” diet, and think of a “balanced fat” diet instead.
Myth #5: Taking aspirin daily is beneficial for heart health
The recommendation to take a daily dose of aspirin comes from its potential to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, which occurs when the blood supply to a part of your heart muscle or brain is blocked. Aspirin thins the blood, which can help prevent the formation of blood clots due to plaque buildup and rupture.
Popping a low-dose, over-the-counter drug sounds like a great preventative step, right? Unfortunately, daily use of aspirin increases the risks of developing stomach issues, including ulcers and bleeding in the stomach and intestines. Because aspirin thins the blood, it can cause complications and concerns over excess bleeding, with these risks increasing with age.
Because of these risks, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends that clinicians stop prescribing a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin to adults over 60, as the potential harms of bleeding outweigh the benefits of heart disease prevention.
Aspirin is still part of the regular treatment plan for patients who have had a heart attack or stroke. But as a preventative, aspirin could actually do more harm than good.
Myth #6: Cardio-based exercise is best for promoting heart health
Aerobic exercise, or a cardio workout, is physical activity that gets your heart rate up and benefits your heart by improving cardiorespiratory fitness. To get your heart pumping, the American Heart Association recommends “at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.” This increased physical activity can help to lower your blood triglyceride levels, while increasing your HDL cholesterol.
However, most of us are not getting this exercise in, especially when you consider that one in four adults do not meet the global recommended levels of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ultimately, spending less time sitting and more time moving can be the best physical activity for your heart, because all this sitting around is actually “deconditioning” your heart.
Research shows that sitting 10 hours a day or more, compared to sitting for less than five hours, is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks, with each additional hour per day spent being sedentary increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
The good news is that even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and improve your overall health, from boosting energy and mood to strengthening bones and maintaining muscle mass and a healthy weight.
So what is the best exercise for your heart health? Whatever gets you up and moving!