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5 Heart Health Mistakes Made by Men—and How to Avoid Them

You mean well. But it’s still easy to slip up when it comes to keeping your heart at its best. To help, the heart health experts at Johns Hopkins identify the key areas that trip up men most—and tell you how to get on a healthier track.

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Quick: When was your last physical exam? Many men keep their cars more finely tuned than their bodies. Did you know that your doctor can estimate your risk of a heart attack over the next 10 years?

To do this, he or she will consider a variety of factors, including your family history, your age, whether you smoke, your blood pressure, your cholesterol, your blood sugar, your weight and any current symptoms. Depending on these risk factors, you may also be given additional testing, such as simple blood protein tests or a coronary artery scan to look at the buildup of calcium in your arteries.

There can be a big gulf between wanting to keep your heart healthy and actually doing the right things to make it happen. “Men tend to have a stoic approach to risk,” says cardiologist Pamela Ouyang, M.B.B.S. And that’s not always in their best interest.

Do any of these common heart health mistakes made by men apply to you?

1. Skipping Preventive Care

Men tend to go to the doctor less often than women for annual checkups. That means they’re less apt to get important routine tests for cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, which are key to gauging heart health. They’re also less likely to report symptoms like chest pain, breathlessness and fatigue—even to the point of ignoring symptoms of heart attack.

How to proceed: If you can’t remember your last physical exam, try to get one as soon as possible. And take action quickly if you feel something’s “not right.”

2. Thinking Erection Problems Are All in Your Head

Trouble getting or maintaining an erection often has more to do with your heart than your mental state. Impotence is mainly caused by a problem with blood flow to the penis. Damaged blood vessels there are an early sign of damage to blood vessels of the heart.

How to proceed: Don’t be embarrassed to see a doctor about a possible physical cause of erectile dysfunction. Your evaluation should include an assessment of your overall heart health.

3. Thinking You’re Too Young for a Heart Attack

The classic “guy with a heart attack” is older—but not necessarily that old. Men with a family history of early heart attack— a close male family member with a heart attack before age 55, or female family member before age 65—may be at higher risk for the same fate, even as early as their 30s and 40s. Overall, men develop coronary artery disease 10 years before women do. That means they tend to have heart attacks in their 60s—for women, it’s the 70s.

How to proceed: Whatever your age, start doing what you can to manage your risk factors, like following a heart-healthy diet, getting exercise, practicing weight control and not smoking, as well as working with your health care provider on controlling high blood pressure or cholesterol.

4. Self-Medicating

Women do this, too, of course—drown miseries in a bottle, say, or chain smoke, work excessively long hours or turn to nachos and potato chips by the bagful in front of the TV when feeling down. But guys sometimes do these things to mask depression, a physical condition that’s linked to heart disease, which men are less likely to report to the doctor.

How to proceed: If you’re feeling sad or hopeless, or experiencing changes in the way you eat or sleep—too much or too little—tell your doctor and ask for advice.

5. Believing You Can’t Do Anything About Health Problems That ‘Run in the Family’

Many men adopt this fatalistic approach about their father’s, grandparents’ or other relatives’ history of heart disease. While it’s true this is one of the risk factors you can’t change—along with age and gender—a great deal can be done to reduce your own odds of a heart event through lifestyle changes and medications.

How to proceed: Bring up family history with your doctor, get your risk assessed with further testing and ask about the prevention tactics that really work—but of course, first and foremost, you have to schedule that checkup.

Definitions

Arteries (are-te-rease): The blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart for delivery to every part of your body. Arteries look like thin tubes or hoses. The walls are made of a tough outer layer, a middle layer of muscle and a smooth inner wall that helps blood flow easily. The muscle layer expands and contracts to help blood move.
Blood vessels (veh-suls): The system of flexible tubes—arteries, capillaries and veins—that carries blood through the body. Oxygen and nutrients are delivered by arteries to tiny, thin-walled capillaries that feed them to cells and pick up waste material, including carbon dioxide. Capillaries pass the waste to veins, which take the blood back to the heart and lungs, where carbon dioxide is let out through your breath as you exhale.

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