Heart Disease: Most Americans Unaware of the Risks

Learn what you can do to help reduce your chances of developing heart disease.

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Updated on November 7, 2023.

It’s been well documented that heart disease is the leading killer of adults in the United States. But what if I told you that the vast majority of Americans have no worries that heart disease will ever affect them?

A survey of around 1,000 people over age 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 recent 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. But 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. 

Let’s try and clear things up

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 symptoms of heart attack. 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 percent thought there were vitamins that can lower cholesterol and 61 percent believed that vitamins and supplements help prevent heart disease. I wish that were true but it is not.

Fish oil supplements can help 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. That's because exercise can help keep your heart 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, but many 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 Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that we eat less than 2,400 mgs of sodium (one teaspoon of salt) per day. That is why reading nutrition labels 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 percent of Americans think that there is a gene that causes heart disease, scientists have not found one yet. That said, there is a hereditary component to heart disease risk.

If you have a first-degree relative who had a heart attack, that does increase your risk. But it does not mean you will necessarily have a heart attack.

My father-in-law’s father died at the age of 50 of a massive heart attack, and my father-in-law was sure he would meet the same fate. Instead, he lived well beyond 90 and was fairly active until he died. He exercised, avoided cigarette smoke, and ate a relatively healthy diet for most of his adult life.

How do you prevent heart disease?

The best way to prevent heart disease consists of a few steps:

  • Maintain normal blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a heart-healthy, Mediterranean-style diet
  • Don't smoke, and if you smoke, quit
  • Learn healthy ways to manage stress

Above all, meet with a healthcare provider on a regular basis so that you can make sure you maintain optimum health and manage your risks.

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