Dispelling Heart Disease Myths

While heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, there are still many misconceptions surrounding this pervasive disease.

We asked Julio Panza, MD, Chief of Cardiology at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), to share some of the top little-known facts about the heart, as well as the risk factors, signs and symptoms associated with heart disease and heart attacks.

Most people are only aware of three out of the “Big Four” risk factors for heart disease common in both men and women: smoking, hypertension (high blood pressure) and cholesterol. The fourth major risk factor is diabetes.

Diabetes doesn’t impact the genders equally. “The effect of diabetes on heart disease is much more pronounced in women than in men,” Dr. Panza says.

Lesser-known risk factors for women include stress, depression, autoimmune diseases and connective-tissue diseases. “Connective-tissue diseases – like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are relatively rare. But among those with these conditions, heart disease is the most common cause of death.”

People also underplay the role of family history as a risk factor for heart disease. “Having a close male relative who suffered a heart attack at age 55 or younger, or a close female relative who suffered a heart attack at age 65 or younger, can increase your risk.”

Symptoms of a heart attack can vary, depending on gender. Men tend to experience the “classic” symptoms of pain and pressure in the center of the chest, and radiating pain in the left arm, especially in colder weather. In contrast, women tend to experience vague discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath, profuse sweating, palpitations and pain in the stomach, back, neck or jaw. Dr. Panza notes that due to these more subtle sensations, “women often tend to minimize the symptoms and wait too long for treatment.”

The heart is a complex organ that may be impacted by diseases associated with its muscle, valves or vessels. However, the most common type is coronary artery disease, caused by the buildup of cholesterol in the artery walls that supply blood flow to the heart.

The average heart beats about 100,000 times per day, more than 35 million times per year and approximately 2.5 billion times during the average lifetime of a person.

The heart pumps five to seven liters of blood per minute and a total of 7,600 liters, or 2,000 gallons, of blood each day.