Members of the Blue Mountain Health System recently held a "Myth busters" session to teach local residents about heart disease's most common myths and important facts.

"One of the reasons we have talks like this is because coronary heart disease is the single leading cause of death in America," said Toni Gibson, RN BSN MHA, associate vice president of nursing at Blue Mountain. She noted that more than 850,000 Americans will have a heart attack each year. For half of these people, the first symptom of heart disease is death they will die before reaching the hospital.

To raise awareness of the risks and signs of heart disease, Gibson and registered dietitian Nancy Matyas shared some common myths about heart disease:

Myth: I'll known when I'm having a heart attack, because I'm having chest pain.

Many people having a heart attack, especially women and the elderly, will have what's called "atypical heart pain" like shortness of breath, confusion, sweating and fatigue.

"I've had many patients come into the ER and tell me that their arms feel heavy, or that they just don't feel right but don't know what it is. When we do an EKG, we find that they're having a heart attack," said Gibson. "If it feels like indigestion, or something just feels wrong, don't fool around with it. Go to the hospital or call an ambulance."

If you have "typical" heart attack symptoms such as chest pain, pain in the arm or jaw, or a heaviness or pressure on the chest, seek immediate medical attention.

Myth: I should avoid exercise after having a heart attack.

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle both before and after heart disease, said Gibson. Most heart attack patients undergo rehabilitation and are encouraged to maintain or begin a more active lifestyle.

Physical activity is also thought to be unlikely to cause a heart attack. The majority of heart attacks occur between 6 a.m. and noon, when people are doing their normal daily activities or resting.

Myth: Heart disease runs in my family, so there's nothing I can do to prevent it.

It's true that family history plays a large role in your risks for heart disease. If your parent has a heart attack before age 55, your risk of also having heart disease increases by 50 percent. If your sibling has a heart attack before age 50, your risk increases by a whopping 250 percent. That doesn't mean there is nothing you can do to prevent heart disease, said Gibson.

"Even if we have something bad in our genetic makeup, there are things we can do about it," she said. "It's important to look at modifiable risk factors. We all have some bad habits that we can change."

Gibson stressed again that moderate exercise about 30 minutes of activity such as brisk walking, 3-4 times per week can do a lot to prevent heart disease. Many of the risk factors that are attributed to heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes can all be improved through diet and exercise.

"It can counteract a lot of the risks," she added.

Of course, preventing heart disease begins by understanding and assessing your personal risk factors. All adults should have their cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar monitored by a physician. If you smoke, quitting can reduce your risk of heart disease by half within two years and return your risk to normal after 10 years.

And because more than 500,000 Americans will die this year due to obesity-related heart disease, take an honest look at your waistline.

Calculate your BMI (body mass index) using an online calculator (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a calculator for adults and children at www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi [3]) to see if your weight places you at higher risk, or grab a tape measure to literally evaluate your waistline women should aim to have a waist smaller than 35 inches; men should aim for a waist of 40 inches or less.