Heart disease, a term used to describe several different types of heart conditions, is not only common, but incredibly fatal. “Heart disease remains the #1 cause of death in the US, accounting for over 850,000 deaths per year,” interventional cardiologist Shon Chakrabarti, MD, explains to Eat This, Not That! Health.
Fortunately, there are a variety of signs, symptoms and risk factors that can help identify heart disease before it becomes life-threatening. Here are 50 of them, courtesy of several top cardiovascular experts across the world. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
If you have been experiencing chest pain for some time, you should get it checked out. “Sometimes, although not always, a heart attack can be preceded by transient chest pain in the preceding hours, days or weeks,” explains Rachel Lampert, MD, a Yale Medicine cardiologist. “Don’t ignore symptoms of chest pain!”
The AHA warns that your bad cough could signify more than a cold. If your persistent cough produces white or pink blood-tinged mucus—which means fluid has been building up in the lungs—it could be due to heart failure. (Note: a dry cough is also a symptom of COVID-19. Call your doctor if you’re experiencing one.)
According to a study courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago, excessive sweating while experiencing discomfort in their chest, arm, neck or jaw—with little or no exertion—it could be the onset of a heart attack.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, a blocked artery can often manifest itself in the form of a blue or purple pattern on your skin. Cholesterol embolization syndrome, which occurs when small arteries become blocked, which can lead to damaged tissues and organs. If you notice this net-like discoloration, you should contact your physician.
Scientists are still studying how COVID-19 affects the heart but “Up to 1 in 5 hospitalized patients have signs of heart injury,” according to Scientific American. “In addition to lung damage, many COVID-19 patients are also developing heart problems—and dying of cardiac arrest.”
“Someone who’s dying from a bad pneumonia will ultimately die because the heart stops,” Dr. Robert Bonow, a professor of cardiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and editor of the medical journal JAMA Cardiology, told the publication. “You can’t get enough oxygen into your system and things go haywire.”
If you’ve had coronavirus, talk to your doctor about how it affected your heart.
High blood pressure is one of the main symptoms of heart disease. “Cardiologists now treat high blood pressure when it is greater than 130/90—and definitely if it’s 140/90,” Dr. Nancy Luo, MD, heart failure and heart transplant Cardiologist with Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, says. “If your blood pressure is consistently higher than 150/90, you likely need more than lifestyle changes.”
Stroke, kidney disease, and heart disease are all impacted by high blood pressure, according to Dr. Chakrabarti. “Often high blood pressure is present alongside the other risk factors for heart disease,” he explains. “Management of high blood pressure is holistic, including lifestyle changes, and in some cases, pharmacotherapy.”
Heart disease has the stereotype of being a “man’s disease,” points out Giuseppe Aragona, MD, Family Medicine Doctor and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor. It can unfortunately go misdiagnosed in women. One of the reasons is because women are more likely to have atypical symptoms. Although chest pain and shortness of breath are common symptoms in both genders, others are almost unique to women. One of these is indigestion, he reveals.
Dr. Nancy Luo, MD, heart failure and heart transplant Cardiologist with Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, explains that recurrent angina—chest pain or discomfort when your heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood flow from blocked arteries—can be an early warning of a future heart attack.
High cholesterol is a direct symptom of heart disease. “Measuring your cholesterol can help determine whether lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Chakrabarti. “This can be achieved with a blood test that measures total cholesterol, low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high-density-lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides.”
Similar to indigestion, heartburn—a painful or uncomfortable feeling in your chest or throat—can be a common symptom for women who have heart disease, explains Dr. Aragona.
Dr. Aragona points out that another common symptom of heart attack in women is lockjaw—which is pain in the jaw.
According to Dr. Aragona, women are more likely than men to experience back pain during a heart attack. The Mayo Clinic adds that women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, or even when asleep, than men. So, pay attention to your body at all hours of the night.
Chest pain is the most common and important symptom related to a heart problem, explains Ross Simpson, MD, PhD, cardiologist and professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine. “This symptom is often described as a tightness in the chest, or a fullness in the chest,” he says. “Only rarely is the chest pain sharp like a knife.” He adds that it may be associated with shortness of breath, sweating, nausea or a feeling of impending doom. It may come on with exercise, last several minutes and be relieved by rest. “Persistent pain lasting more than 5 minutes, or pain coming on at rest, waking someone from sleep, or a change in pattern of intermittent pain demands immediate medical attention.”
Breathing fast or feeling that you are not getting all the air needed may be associated with chest pain, but may occur at other times. “Shortness of breath while lying flat or shortly after lying down at night may be a sign of fluid retention and a weak heart,” Dr. Simpson explains. It might also be a sign of coronavirus, so contact your doctor.
If you are experiencing skipped or rapid heartbeats—either in the chest or neck and may occur while resting or at any time during the day—it could be a sign of heart disease, according to Dr. Simpson. “If these occur with exercise, awaken one from sleep, or are associated with dizziness or shortness of breath, prompt medical attention is necessary,” he explains.
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Another sign of heart disease? If you faint. “The sudden loss of consciousness, particularly if falling has caused head or other injury, may be a medical emergency,” warns Dr. Simpson.
Edema, aka swelling in the feet or unusual fullness in the abdomen, may be a sign of heart weakness and fluid retention. “This sign is generally not an emergency, but should be reviewed by a doctor to understand its cause and have it treated,” Dr. Simpson explains.
The sensation of fluttering or rapid beating in your chest can be a sign of an abnormal heart rhythm, explains Christopher Kelly, MD, cardiologist with North Carolina Heart & Vascular at UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Get checked out if (1) the sensation happens at random times, unrelated to stress or physical exertion, and lasts for more than a second or two, or (2) the palpitations are associated with shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness,” he suggests.
According to the American Heart Association, Bradycardia is a heart rate that’s too slow. What’s considered too slow can depend on your age and physical condition, but is generally fewer than 60 beats per minute for adults.
If you can’t keep up with the others in your exercise class, it’s possible that you’re just out of shape. But it could also be a sign of a heart problem, like heart failure or a blocked coronary artery, explains Dr. Kelly. “Consider getting a stress test to better quantify your exercise tolerance and look for any signs of heart strain,” he says.
Another major symptom of heart disease is heart failure, according to the CDC. It occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body. While it is a serious condition, it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating. Symptoms include shortness of breath during daily activities, having trouble breathing when lying down, weight gain with swelling in the feet, legs, ankles, or stomach, or generally feeling tired or weak.
If your heart is pumping with its usual vigor, blood will get backed up in the veins, and fluid will leak into soft tissues. The swelling typically follows the force of gravity and is worst in the feet. But, as the swelling progresses, it can climb to the legs or even hips, adds Dr. Kelly. “Fluid accumulation can also be a sign of kidney or liver problems, or of blood clots,” he says. “If you notice significant, new-onset swelling, get checked out right away.”
Heart disease can manifest itself on your earlobes! “Believe it or not, diagonal creases in the earlobes have been associated with an increased risk of a heart attack,” Dr. Kelly reveals. While doctors aren’t sure of the exact reason, he points out that it may be related to abnormal connective tissue.
If your calves start hurting whenever you start hustling, and feel better when you rest, you could have diseased arteries in your legs, says Dr. Kelly. “This condition, known as peripheral arterial disease, is strongly associated with heart disease,” he states.
Having trouble in bed? It could have to do with your heart. “If you struggle to get an adequate erection and have risk factors for heart disease—like diabetes, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol values—you could have disease in the arteries of your pelvis, which is strongly associated with disease in the arteries on the heart,” says Dr. Kelly.
If you’re a tall adult with long arms and extra flexible joints, you could have Marfan’s disease, according to Dr. Kelly. “This genetic condition affects connective tissue and can cause heart problems, such as rips in the main artery that conveys blood from the heart to the rest of the body,” he says.
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Feeling more depressed than usual? Laurence Gerlis MA, MB, CEO & Lead Clinician at SameDayDoctor, explains that a feeling of impending doom can be your body’s natural response to serious illness—including heart disease.
If you notice any cholesterol deposits—soft, flat, yellowish lumps—around your eyes, it is likely your cholesterol is high, explains Dr. Gerlis.
Your expanding waistline is obviously a symptom of weight gain—a predisposing factor to heart disease, reminds Dr. Gerlis.
If you drink more alcohol than recommended (“up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men,” says the CDC), you could end up with more than a bad hangover. Dr. Gerlis reminds that the more you drink, your chances of heart disease increase.
If you are experiencing trouble sleeping or are suffering from sleep apnea, Dr. Gerlis points out that it could be a sign of poor heart function. Make sure to call your doctor and have it checked out immediately. A simple at-home sleep test can determine whether you have sleep apnea, and can be promptly treated.
The American Stroke Association explains that there is a significant link between heart disease and stroke. This is due to the fact that several types of heart disease are risk factors for the “brain attack,” which occurs when blood circulation to the brain fails. Interestingly enough, a stroke is also a risk factor for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, experiencing pain or discomfort in one or both arms is one of the main signs you are having a heart attack.
The American Stroke Association points out that arm weakness or numbness may signify a stroke. “Ask the person to raise both arms,” they suggest as a test. “Does one arm drift downward?” If yes, seek medical help immediately.
According to the AHA, a feeling of being full or sick to your stomach can be a sign you are experiencing heart failure. Why does this happen? They explain it is due to the digestive system receiving less blood, causing problems with digestion.
Another key sign of a stroke is slurred speech, per the ASA. This can come in the form of being unable to speak, or simply difficult to understand. “Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like ‘the sky is blue,’” they suggest as a test. If they have trouble repeating it, call 911 immediately.
If you notice that someone suddenly seems confused or is having trouble processing thought—as in memory loss or feelings of disorientation—it could be due to heart failure per the AHA. Why does it occur? It could be due to changing levels of certain substances in the blood, such as sodium.
Another symptom of a stroke, per the ASA, is facial numbing or drooping. If the person in question has a hard time smiling, you should get them help ASAP.
Sometimes, a person has a heart attack with little or no symptoms. According to the CDC, about 1 in 5 heart attacks is silent—meaning the damage is done, but the person is not aware of it.
Seizures are a very rare symptom of heart disease. According to research, they may indicate underlying cardiac rhythmic disorder, and can occur in both men and women of all ages.
One of the most obvious symptoms of heart disease is suffering a heart attack. According to the CDC, a heart attack, or myocardial infarction, happens when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood. The longer that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart muscle. How do you know if you are experiencing one? They describe the symptoms as “chest pain or discomfort, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, and shortness of breath.” Keep reading for a detailed explanation for each of these!
Yes, even your age can be a symptom of heart disease. “Heart attack risks increase as you get older,” Dr. Luo states.
While not exactly a physical symptom, one indicator of heart disease is simply if it is part of your medical history. “If you have a long history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or smoking, your risks of a heart attack will increase,” points out Dr. Luo.
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Dr. Luo points out that it isn’t just your medical history that is useful when diagnosing heart disease. It often runs in families—so if anyone on your family tree has experienced it, you are more likely to yourself.
Heart health is one of the main reasons you should get your sweat on. “Regular, moderate exercise is critical to help reduce the risk of heart disease,” explains Dr. Chakrabarti. “Physical activity can directly influence the other risk factors for heart disease, including cholesterol, blood pressure, and obesity. While the appropriate amount of physical activity varies from person to person, he suggests consulting with your health care provider to determine what may be right for you.
If you are diabetic, you are more at risk for heart disease. “Even with good glucose control, diabetes is an ongoing risk factor for heart disease,” says Dr. Chakrabarti. “These risks are amplified with poor glucose control, making a healthy lifestyle paramount in this population.”
Smoking is bad for your lungs—and your heart. “Smoking—including tobacco smoke—is an independent risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Chakrabarti says. “This is a completely preventable cause,” he adds.
Just as smoking can negatively impact your heart, so can second hand smoke, points out Dr. Chakrabarti. If you have spent extensive time indoors with a smoker, you should consider yourself more at risk for heart disease.
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Your heart may be at risk if you aren’t eating right. “There is a lot of literature about what constitutes a heart healthy diet,” explains Dr. Chakrabarti. “Common trends are moderation of dietary fat, salt, and cholesterol, and integrating as much fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible.”
When young people have a sudden cardiac arrest or die suddenly, there are a different set of more common causes, most of which are due to genetic abnormalities, explains Dr. Lampert. “While studies differ in which is the most common, these fall in three groups—disorders of the heart muscle (or cardiomyopathies), disorders of the heart’s electrical system (heart rhythm abnormalities), or congenital abnormalities of the coronary arteries (“anomalous coronary artery”), any of which can lead to a sudden arrhythmia that causes cardiac arrest,” she explains. When young athletes die suddenly on the field, these are generally the causes, but this can also happen in young people who are not athletes. “These issues can also present in older people, although less commonly.”
Unfortunately, one of the first symptoms of heart disease can be fatal—especially in genetic cases. “Often sudden cardiac arrest or death can be the first presentation,” explains Dr. Lampert. “Talk to your doctor if others in the family have died suddenly below 35 or 40 years of age, or if there have been deaths in unusual circumstances—for example, a good driver drove off the road, or ‘no one ever knew what happened to Uncle Harry’ who died in his 20s,” she suggests. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.