PhotoIf you ask someone which they fear more, cancer or heart disease, chances are they'll express a greater fear of cancer. But when it comes to U.S. deaths, slightly more people die each year of heart disease than cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Maybe it's because we just take our hearts for granted, we don't seem to give them much thought. The Cleveland Clinic recently commissioned a survey and found that 74% of Americans expressed no fear of dying of heart-related illness.

Doctors at the clinic say the study reveals other reasons why most people don't give heart disease a second thought. It turns out a lot of the things we think we know about our hearts and the way they function is simply wrong.

Unaware of symptoms

For example, 70% of Americans are unaware of all the symptoms of heart disease, even though two out of three of those surveyed have or know someone who has heart disease. More distressing to the doctors, only 30% correctly identified unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and jaw pain as all being signs of heart disease – just a few of the symptoms that can occur.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in this country, so it’s disappointing to see that so many Americans are unaware of the severity of not taking action to prevent heart disease, or how exactly to do so,” said Steven Nissen, M.D., Chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “This is a disease that can largely be prevented and managed, but you have to be educated about how to do so and then incorporate prevention into your lifestyle.”


Here's a quiz to see what you know – and don't know – about your heart:

  1. True or False? Adding fish oil to your diet can prevent heart disease. False. Though fish oil has a number of health benefits, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic say preventing heart attacks isn't one of them.
  2. True or False? Getting the right amount of daily vitamins reduces your risk of a heart attack? False again. Studies have shown that vitamins have almost no effect on heart health, and some can be detrimental. If you got this one wrong, don't feel bad – 61% of the people in the survey did as well.
  3. Which is a bigger source of sodium in the diet, cheese or bread? The answer is bread. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed got that one wrong.
  4. True or False? Some people are genetically predisposed to develop heart disease. False. Even though 59% of those in the survey believe a heart disease gene could be the key to determining their predisposition to the condition, no such gene has been identified. Family history is an important risk factor but not for genetic reasons.

Important symptoms

PhotoIf you are at risk of heart disease, it's important to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Boston area cardiologist Dr. Larry Weinrauch says people should be sensitive to unusual pain and discomfort.

Pain caused by an inadequate supply of oxygen to the heart can occur in many different forms but its location is usually consistent. Most of the time patients describe a tightness, heaviness or constriction in the mid-chest or upper abdomen that appears to also be present in one or the other shoulder. They may also feel discomfort in the upper biceps, elbow and wrist.

The reason for the pain is the heart is not getting enough oxygen to the parts of the body that need it. The central nervous system responds by signaling discomfort. Doctors say people at risk need to be sensitive to that discomfort and seek medical attention.

“There is no single way to prevent heart disease, given that every person is different,” Nissen said. “Yet there are five things everyone should learn when it comes to their heart health because they can make an enormous difference and greatly improve your risk: eat right, exercise regularly, know your cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index numbers, do not use tobacco, and know your family history. Taking these steps can help lead to a healthier heart and a longer, more vibrant life.”

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