Cardiologists Explain Heart Health And Disease Secrets That You Should Know

In America, one person dies from heart disease every 37 seconds. Since cardiovascular conditions are earth’s number one killer, many people want to keep their hearts pumping. Cardiologists give plenty of advice on how to treat your heart.

Some of these recommendations may go against what people normally hear, such as not recommending supplements, and women and men having different symptoms. But these secrets about heart health could change your life. Read on to learn what cardiologists want you to know about cardiovascular disease and heart health.

Thin People Aren’t Free From Heart Disease

A nurse measures the blood pressure of a patient.
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Although obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, skinny people aren’t in the clear, either. Research in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that some thin people have “hidden fat.” Known as metabolically obese normal weight (MONW), these people have an average BMI but are still at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

The reason is that fat gathers around the organs, as opposed to visible places like the stomach. Cardiologist Monali Y. Desai says that skinny people may not pay attention to their blood sugar or cholesterol levels–but they should.

Heart Palpitations? Think About Potential Causes

A regular heartbeat is shown on a monitor.

Heart palpitations are when the heart skips a beat, pounds rapidly, or flutters. Cardiologists often see patients with heart palpitations, but many don’t need medical attention. According to cardiologist Dr. Todd Hurst, irregular heartbeats can stem from caffeine, anxiety, or stress.

That said, consider whether you should visit a doctor. Normal palpitations last for a couple of seconds to a minute. If yours last for more than five minutes, happen frequently, or accompany other symptoms such as dizziness or shortness of breath, see a professional.

Most Cardiologists Don’t Recommend Supplements

A person holds a  Metabolife dietary supplement that doctors discourage.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Despite what supplement companies advertise, they may not keep your heart healthy. “The bottom line is, we don’t recommend supplements to treat or to prevent cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Edgar R. Miller III, a physician at Johns Hopkins. After Dr. Miller ran clinical trials on “heart-healthy” supplements, he saw that they made no difference.

Plus, supplements can do more harm than good. The FDA does not regulate most vitamins on the market, and some contain added fillers that aren’t on the label. The good news? You don’t need to waste money on “heart-healthy” supplements.

Family History Doesn’t Matter As Much

A family doctor examines a patient's blood pressure.

Some patients may worry that they have a family history of heart disease if their grandfather has a stroke at age 80. But cardiologists have a strict measurement for what is considered family history. “We define family history as a cardiac event before age 60 in women and before 50 in men,” explains cardiologist Dr. Sarah Samaan.

Plus, genes aren’t the worst risk factor for heart disease. Cardiologist Regina Druz says that environmental factors–including diet, exercise, and even air pollution–can influence your disease risk more than genes alone.

Sugar Is Worse Than Fat

A person pours sugar from a spoon.
Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images
Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images

In 2016, scientists concluded that eating sugar endangers your heart more than saturated fat. Although the American Heart Association once condemned saturated fat, recent studies say that it isn’t too bad in moderation. Replacing fats with processed sugar is worse, explains cardiovascular researcher James DiNicolantonio.

“Your liver metabolizes sugar…and converts dietary carbohydrates to fat,” says Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Frank Hu. As a result, having one-fifth of your diet consist of sugar can increase your risk of heart disease by 38%, according to JAMA Internal Medicine.

Women And Men Have Different Disease Symptoms

A doctor measures a woman's heartrate.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Believe it or not, some people don’t experience intense chest pain during a heart attack. Some experience back pain, indigestion, or shortness of breath during heart disease. “Women are much more likely to have atypical heart attack symptoms,” says Dr. Lili Barouch of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Other less-known symptoms include lightheadedness, fatigue, jaw pain, neck pain, vomiting, and pain in one or both arms. For this reason, you should attend regular doctor appointments. Early diagnosis of high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome can save the heart.

Blood Pressure Often Rises During Work

A woman appears stressed while at work.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

If your blood pressure or heart-rate elevates at work, you’re not alone. It’s called “white coat hypertension,” and it may have some health consequences. According to research in 2019, people with white coat hypertension have a 6% higher risk of a heart attack.

However, not all cardiologists agree that white coat hypertension is fatal. Some cardiologists care more about your blood pressure at home than at work, since work hypertension may not be long term. Visit your doctor if you’re concerned about white coat hypertension.

Age Doesn’t Determine Your Heart Health

An elderly lady plays Wii Sports with a young woman.
Getty Images
Getty Images

People in their 20s, 30s, and 40s may believe that they’re in the clear for heart health. But that’s not true. David Greuner, a cardiovascular surgeon, emphasizes that heart disease can happen at any age. Cardiovascular disease relies more on plaque buildup than age.

Plus, cardiologists focus on disease prevention for early adults. During a study from the Chicago Health Association, peoples’ health habits in their 40s greatly impacted their heart health at 65, 75, and 85. The takeaway: you’re never too young to visit a cardiologist or to care about your heart.

Your Sleeping Habits Can Impact Your Heart

A woman sits up in her bed as she struggles to sleep.
Tara Walton/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Tara Walton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

If you’re struggling to sleep, tell your doctor. According to the American Heart Association, poor sleep (less than six hours a night) is linked to high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Sleep-deprived people have higher stress, which manifests as inflammation that may harm your heart.

“And if your spouse is always nagging you for snoring, that’s an important sign too,” adds cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra. Sleep apnea can cause cardiac arrhythmia or an irregular heartbeat that could lead to heart failure. If you struggle with any of these sleep issues, consult a doctor.

If Normal Activities Take Longer To Perform, Beware

A jogger pauses while experiencing shortness of breath.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although muscle mass and strength decline with age, the difference is hardly noticeable. But if it interrupts your life, that’s not just age-related. Cardiologist Monali Y. Desai asks how long it takes patients to walk a mile. “From year to year, there should not be dramatic changes in how long it takes. If there are, this may be a sign you’re developing heart disease.”

According to the American Heart Association, 59% of people who have experienced heart failure struggle to complete daily tasks. A heart condition could be causing subtle but harmful symptoms that many people overlook.

Teeth Health Equals Heart Health

A woman brushes her teeth.
GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images
GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images

If you care about your heart, take care of your teeth. Yes, you read that right: dental and cardiovascular health closely linked. “Poor dental and gum health is linked to heart disease,” explains Jennifer Haythe, a director of cardio-obstetrics at Columbia.

According to a 2018 study, brushing your teeth twice a day decreases the risk of heart failure and stroke. For reasons that scientists don’t yet understand, poor dental hygiene may cause heart valve function. Even if you don’t care about your teeth, clean them for your heart instead.

Stress Is A Significant Risk Factor

A woman stresses over studying.

Stress affects the heart more negatively than many people think. “Chronic stress is like an engine that is always revved up too high. Eventually, it can break down the body,” explains cardiologist Dr. Hicham Skal. Over time, stress hormones can raise blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

Cardiologists emphasize that managing stress levels can save your heart. The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends regular exercise, building a strong support network, and reducing work anxiety–all of which have research-backed effects on stress.

Please, Ask Your Doctor Questions

A patient consults a doctor at his desk.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Although a cardiology appointment can seem intimidating, doctors want you to come with questions. You can ask what your ideal weight/cholesterol levels should be or which painkillers you should be taking. “I recommend patients come with a list of questions,” says cardiologist Dr. Claire Boccia Liang. It also acts as an icebreaker.

Boston doctor Malissa J. Wood advises patients to ask questions at the beginning, before the doctor conducts a physical exam. You can also bring in a loved one for extra support. If you have any concerns, now is the time to bring them up.

“Dark Chocolate Is Healthy” Doesn’t Mean “Eat More Chocolate”

A woman eats chocolate squares.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Research indicates that dark chocolate (with over 70% cocoa) benefits the heart. But that doesn’t mean you should indulge more. “Dark chocolate, like other chocolates, is still high in calories and can lead to weight gain,” says cardiologist Dr. Poulina Uddin. Only small amounts improve your health.

The study, which comes from the journal Heart, was purely observational–it tracked the deaths of people who ate 3.5 ounces of chocolate compared to those who didn’t. Cardiologists don’t prescribe eating dark chocolate for your heart.

Get Your Annual Physical

A doctor consoles a patient.

Even if you feel healthy, you should get a yearly physical exam. According to UT Southwestern Medical Center, annual exams are designed to prevent heart disease through early diagnosis. Doctors measure your blood pressure and cholesterol to learn how these could impact your heart.

Heart disease is called a “silent killer” for a reason. “If [risk factors] are assessed at least once a year, then there are fewer surprises,” says cardiologist Dr. Nicole Weinberg. These exams also allow you to ask questions regarding your habits and health.

It’s A Slippery Slope

A man clutches his chest in pain.
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Pre-cardiovascular conditions, like diabetes or obesity, may seem like no big deal. But they’re a slippery slope to heart conditions. When you’re overweight, your risk of heart disease rises. Add diabetes, and the risk increases more. Add high blood pressure, high cholesterol, metabolic disorders–the risk only heightens.

Christopher Hanifin, a physician assistant, says that stress and inflammation can change the shape of your heart. If you don’t prevent heart illness, the organ will change more. “The next thing you know, a person can find themselves on a fast downward spiral,” he says.

Be Honest About Your Unhealthy Habits

A doctor talks to a patient in his office.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A doctor’s appointment isn’t the time to be shy about your habits. Lying about your diet, substance abuse, or exercise routine could have fatal consequences. How a cardiologist manages your heart issues depends in part on your lifestyle habits,” explains Dr. Erin O’Malley Tysko.

A study in JAMA Network Open revealed that 60% to 80% of people aren’t honest with their doctors. Most participants were worried about being lectured or blamed. But if you lie to a cardiologist, you could receive the wrong medication or dosage, which will only worsen your health.

A Bit Of Weight Loss Goes A Long Way

A man stands on a scale.
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People don’t have to lose 50 pounds for a healthier heart. During a study in Translational Behavioral Medicine, participants who lost 10% of their body fat had significantly improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Even losing five pounds can lower your risk of heart disease.

Harold Bays, a member of the Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, says that “[a]n increase in body fat can directly contribute to heart disease through atrial enlargement, ventricular enlargement, and atherosclerosis.” A drop in body fat–no matter how small–can prevent those complications.

According To Science, Meditation Helps

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Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Meditation isn’t New Age woo-woo; research revealed that it has many benefits. In 2013, a study found that five minutes of mediation improved participants’ heart rate variability (HRV). People with lower HRV have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

“Doing some meditation, no matter how brief, is always better than nothing,” says Dr. John Denninger, the director of research at Benson-Henry Institute. Plus, mindfulness and meditation can reduce stress levels, which also contribute to heart health. Why not give it a try?

Ten Minutes Of Exercise Can Make A Difference

Two men work out in a yoga class.
Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an hour-long workout at the gym to benefit your heart. In 2016, a study in PLoS ONE discovered that ten minutes of high-intensity workouts could benefit your health. Those short sprints may even help more than a long, moderate workout.

“Brief bursts of intense exercise are remarkably effective,” says kinesiology professor Martin Gibala. High-intensity interval training (or HIIT workouts) can stabilize insulin levels to encourage heart health, the study finds. Of course, exercise more if you can, but you don’t need a lot to make a difference.