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5 heart health myths, busted

Blog post | 14 Feb 2019

Heart disease is the leading underlying cause of death in Australia — and not just among the elderly. It's also the leading cause of death for Australians aged 45 to 64.

Knowing how to look after your heart is essential, as is separating fact from fiction. Here are 5 common heart health myths and the truth behind them.

Myth: Women don't have heart attacks

Yes, they do — and women are less likely to survive heart attacks than men. It is true that more men have heart attacks: 36,000 men and 19,000 women are admitted to hospital after a heart attack per year. But the gap between how many men versus women die of a heart attack is narrower: annually, 4,434 men and 4,009 women don't survive.

Heart attack may be more dangerous for women partly because they often don't know the symptoms and are therefore less likely to seek medical treatment. Women are also less likely to experience chest pain while having a heart attack and instead can have symptoms such as shortness of breath, upper back pressure, flu-like symptoms, weakness or lightheadedness.

Heart disease is responsible for 11% of all deaths in Australian women and almost 14% of deaths in Australian men.   

Myth: If you smoke, or used to smoke, you can't reduce your risk of heart disease

Actually, you can — if you quit. The benefits of quitting smoking, regardless of age or how many cigarettes you've consumed, start as soon as you stop. One year after stopping smoking, your risk of heart attack or stroke drops by half; between 5 and 15 years, your risk of heart disease and stroke will the same as if you never smoked.

Myth: Men often suffer cardiac arrest during sex

Despite how often you see it in movies, sex is rarely to blame for sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) — accounting for less than 1 in 100 of cases. It is more likely to happen to men than women, however, say researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in the US.

SCA happens when the heart suddenly stops beating and it usually leads to death if not treated with within minutes. (A heart attack, on the other hand, is caused by a blockage of the blood flow to the heart.) Less than 1 in 20 people survive SCA in Australia, according to St John's Ambulance.

Myth: Gum disease causes heart disease

There is an association (or, 'link') between gum disease and heart disease but researchers are unable to say that poor oral health causes heart disease. If you have one of the conditions, you are more likely to have the other, but there is a big overlap between the risk factors for gum disease and heart disease, such as poor diet, smoking and higher alcohol consumption. In other words, it could be smoking or an unhealthy lifestyle that causes both gum disease and heart disease in an individual.

Whether there is a causal link between gum disease and heart disease or not (more research is needed), it's important to look after your gums and teeth. The bacteria that infects the gums can lead to inflammation and, if left untreated, gum disease can eventually cause teeth to fall out.

Myth: Heart surgery fixes everything

If only it were that simple. Treatments such as angioplasty and bypass surgery can relieve chest pain (angina), restore blood flow to the heart and improve a person's quality of life, but they don't 'fix' the underlying disease — atherosclerosis, which is the clogging of arteries with fatty deposits.

If the problems that caused the atherosclerosis in the first place are not addressed (for example, inactivity, being overweight or obese, poor diet, smoking and high cholesterol), arteries will continue to be clogged with fatty plaque — leading to more angina or even heart attack or stroke. 

Help heart research this Valentine's Day

  • On February 14, it's expected that 51 Australians will die from heart disease — and every day after that. If you would like to dedicate an e-card to someone you love while contributing to research, visit the Heart Foundation.  

  • Wear red on Valentine's Day to boost awareness of heart disease and raise funds. Use the hashtags #wearredday or #heartdiseaseawareness. Visit Heart Research Australia for ways to help (and at any time of year).

  • You can also support the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, an independent medical research facility by clicking here.

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