Heart Disease: Most Americans Unaware of the Risks

Medically reviewed in February 2022

It’s been well documented that heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women in the U.S. But what if I told you that the vast majority of Americans have no worries that heart disease will ever affect them?

In fact, a survey of around 1,000 men and women over aged 18 conducted at the Cleveland Clinic found that the majority of those surveyed did not understand the risks of heart disease and the actions needed to prevent it. In addition, despite all the efforts (in the last many years) to educate the public, most were unaware of the signs of a heart attack.

The survey showed that 74 percent of Americans are not worried about dying from heart disease, and 32 percent are not taking any steps to prevent the condition. Even among the 39 percent of Americans with a family history of heart disease who are at significantly higher risk, only 26 percent are taking action to protect their heart health.

The reasons for this are unclear. However, I suspect that many of us live in the land of denial. We don’t think that a heart attack could possibly happen to us, so we put our heads in the sand. Others may be confused due to conflicting media stories regarding treatments and supplements.

Let’s try and clear things up, shall we?
I have had many patients who were having a heart attack and did not recognize it. Several women developed jaw pain and went to the dentist first. Another patient thought she was having a horrible case of the flu. These patients survived, but they lost valuable time and heart muscle by not calling 911 and getting help immediately.

Given the seriousness of heart disease, we all need to increase our awareness of the risk factors and signs of this illness. If something doesn’t feel right with your body, pay attention.

How do you know if you are having a heart attack?
Men and women often show different signs. Men typically will feel like an elephant is sitting on their chest with pain that also goes into the neck and down the left arm. It is often accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, and nausea, overwhelming fatigue and in some cases a sense of doom.

Women may experience the above as well. However, they are more likely to feel like they have a bad case of the flu with severe fatigue, abdominal discomfort or heartburn, jaw pain, trouble sleeping, and/or anxiety.

Do vitamins help?
Of those surveyed, 44% thought there were vitamins that can lower cholesterol and 61% believed that vitamins and supplements help prevent heart disease. I wish that were true but it is not. Fish oil supplements help to lower triglyceride levels but have not been found to prevent heart disease or heart failure. Supplements such as Resveratrol and grape seed extract may help in the prevention of heart disease in theory, but there is no scientific evidence in humans that they do. Vitamins and supplements are expensive. Your money may be better spent on a gym membership – exercise can help keep your ticker strong and healthy and, if you’re carrying some extra pounds, help you lose them.

What about salt?
Salt affects the kidneys, causing your body to hold on to more water. This, as a result, increases the volume of fluid and pressure in the blood vessels. Over time the blood vessels become thickened, stiff and narrowed, requiring even more power to push the blood through them – and blood pressure goes up.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans have no idea where salt is hiding. Most of us are unaware of the fact that bread has more salt than cheese. Soup is considered a healthy meal. However, many of the canned or instant soups have extremely high salt contents. Bottled salad dressings are another source of high levels of salt that we don’t usually think about. The USDA recommends that we eat less than 2400 mgs of sodium (one teaspoon of salt) per day. That is why label reading is a must. It is impossible to know how much you are getting when you eat out in restaurants; it’s safe to say that you will probably meet or exceed the recommended amount in a single meal.

What about the heart disease gene?
Despite the fact that 60% of Americans think that there is a gene that causes heart disease, scientists have not found one yet. However, there is a hereditary component to heart disease risk. If you have a first-degree relative who had a heart attack that does up your risk. It does not mean you will have a heart attack. My father-in-law’s father died at the age of 50 of a massive heart attack. My father-in-law was sure he would meet the same fate. However, he is 90 and still going strong. He has exercised, avoided cigarette smoke and eaten a relatively healthy diet for the last 60 years.

How do you prevent heart disease?
The best way to prevent heart disease is to maintain normal blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, avoid becoming overweight or obese, exercise and eat a heart-healthy, Mediterranean-style diet. If you smoke, quit, and learn healthy ways to manage stress. Meet with your doctor on a regular basis so that you can make sure you maintain optimum health and manage your risks.

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