7 most common heart disease myths

Jigsaw pieces that say myth and reality on them

Heart and circulatory disease will affect all of us in some form – but many people don’t know the facts. We debunk seven of the most common and persistent myths around heart disease. How many do you know?

1. Taking statins will have damaging side effects

BHF-funded research has provided very strong and clear evidence that statins reduce the risk of someone dying from or being debilitated by a heart attack or stroke. Statins are among the safest and the most studied medications available today.

But, like all medication, they have potential side effects. The most common are muscular aches and pains, but most people experience none at all. Serious side effects are rare.

If you are prescribed a statin, you need to take it every day. Statins are most beneficial when you take them on a long-term basis. If you experience side effects, or if your side effects change or become worse, tell your GP.

2. Cardiac arrest and heart attack are the same thing

A heart attack is not the same as a cardiac arrest.

A heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. Because of the blockage, the heart muscle can’t get its vital blood supply and will begin to die because it is not getting enough oxygen, if left untreated. The person will probably be conscious – you should call 999 and keep them calm.

A cardiac arrest is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood around their body and they stop breathing normally. The person will be unconscious – you should call 999 and start CPR.

Many cardiac arrests in adults happen because of a heart attack. This is because a person who is having a heart attack may develop a dangerous heart rhythm, which can cause a cardiac arrest.

A heart attack and a cardiac arrest are both emergency situations. Call 999 immediately if you or someone else seems to be having one.Infographic showing the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest

3. Heart disease is preventable and caused by a poor lifestyle, so slim and active people are protected 

This could be due to genetic factors, (for example, inherited heart conditions). But there are other factors that cause heart disease which still remain unclear, highlighting the need for more research in this area.

4. Coughing vigorously during a heart attack could save your life

There is no medical evidence to support ‘cough CPR’, which suggests you can help yourself by coughing vigorously if you think you’re having a heart attack and are alone.

If you have a cardiac arrest you would become unconscious, and without immediate CPR (chest compressions and rescue breaths), you would die. But If you are still conscious (and you would have to be to do ‘cough CPR’), then you are not in cardiac arrest and therefore CPR is not needed, but urgent medical help is vital.

If you witness a cardiac arrest, you can increase the person’s chances of survival by phoning 999 immediately and giving CPR.

 A man coughing

5. You can have a “minor” heart attack

It is true that heart attacks can vary in how much heart muscle is deprived of blood supply.

Heart attacks are divided into STEMI and nSTEMI, according to how they show up on the ECG. STEMI occurs when there’s a total blockage of the main artery that pumps oxygenated blood around the body. NSTEMI, which is more common, is a partial blockage of one or more arteries. Both result in serious damage to the heart muscle, and any heart attack is an emergency, though nSTEMI has a worse long-term prognosis.

But, however much of your heart is affected; a heart attack means you have heart disease, which is usually incurable. All heart attacks come with a risk of long-term problems, such as abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia), and a higher risk of a second heart attack or stroke.

6. Heart disease is a man’s disease

Cardiovascular disease kills the same proportion of women as it does men – that’s over a quarter of all men and women.

In fact, coronary heart disease (a type of cardiovascular disease) kills more than twice as many women than breast cancer.

Considering these figures, it’s worrying that some women believe that heart disease won’t affect them, and only affects middle-aged men. This can mean that women are less aware of the risk factors, or the symptoms of a heart attack, and are slower to call 999 when they have a heart attack – which could dramatically reduce their chance of survival. As a woman, it’s vital to know how heart disease can affect you. The good news is, in many cases, it can be prevented.

Men and women illustration 

7. Heart failure is when your heart stops beating 

Having heart failure means that for some reason your heart is not pumping blood around the body as well as it used to. Heart failure can develop suddenly or it can happen slowly over months or even years.

The most common reason is that your heart muscle has been damaged, for example after a heart attack.

A sudden cardiac arrest does mean that the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. This means that blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs, so a person can die within minutes if it’s not treated. Using a defibrillator for a sudden cardiac arrest can be life saving.

We know that leading a healthy lifestyle – eating a balanced diet, getting physical activity, stopping smoking, and reducing your stress levels – can help to prevent heart disease. But some people can lead exemplary lifestyles and still develop heart disease.

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