It’s possible to have heart disease and not even know it. Watch for these red flags.
Good news: The number of deaths due to heart disease has gone down slightly, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Don’t put on your party hat just yet. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and your risk goes up as you get older.
You’re also at higher risk if you have high cholesterol, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease, says Susan Besser, M.D., a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Unfortunately, heart disease can be quite sneaky, and it’s possible to have heart disease and not know it. “It is frequently a silent disease, at least initially,” Dr. Besser says.
But back to good news: Taking action today can help you protect your ticker. Here’s what you should know about heart disease—and how to spot the warning signs.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a blanket term that encompasses many problems related to the heart. This includes:
Coronary artery disease (a.k.a. coronary heart disease): Your heart pumps out blood to your body, but it also needs blood to work. Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, is the result of plaque buildup in the arteries. This buildup blocks blood flow to the heart—and increases your risk for heart attack.
Arrhythmia (a.k.a. heart rhythm disorder): A healthy heart beats at a steady, even pace. An arrhythmia is a problem with how your heart beats. Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an example.
Heart failure: This occurs when the heart muscle is weakened and can’t pump out enough oxygen-rich blood to your organs. And that means your organs can’t work properly.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease you have. Here’s a breakdown of four common signs.
Warning Sign #1: High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, or vision loss. But it doesn’t often have noticeable symptoms—until you have a very serious problem.
The best way to find out if your blood pressure is too high? Get it checked at least once a year. Your blood pressure numbers will give you a sense of how hard your heart is working and the overall health of your arteries.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), high blood pressure generally means:
- Top number (systolic) above 130 mmHg OR
- Bottom number (diastolic) above 80 mmHg
If you have high blood pressure, you have a lot of company. More than 60 percent of men and women between the ages of 65 and 74 have high blood pressure, according to the CDC. And it’s even more common after age 75.
Luckily, high blood pressure can often be controlled, and lifestyle adjustments—like exercise—can be very effective. Check out our guide to simple ways to lower your blood pressure without meds.
Warning Sign #2: Shortness of Breath and Chest Pain
As cholesterol-rich plaque builds up in your arteries, it damages them and makes it harder for blood to reach your heart. A heart attack is when an artery to your heart becomes completely blocked.
The most common symptoms of coronary artery disease are shortness of breath and chest pain, says Jennifer H. Haythe, M.D., codirector of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center.
Shortness of breath can occur when you’re exerting energy or when you’re resting. And chest pain (a.k.a. angina) comes in many different forms. It can be a sense of squeezing, burning, aching, pressure, or a general feeling of discomfort in the chest.
If you’ve noticed these symptoms recently, tell your doctor right away, Dr. Haythe says.
However, if you experience sudden chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, or any other subtle signs of heart attack, you should seek emergency care.
Warning Sign #3: Fluttering Heartbeat
An arrhythmia causes an irregular heartbeat, meaning the heart muscles aren’t contracting in a steady, rhythmic pattern. In some cases, it can beat too quickly. In other cases, it can beat too slowly.
With AFib, the most common type of arrhythmia, the heart beats irregularly. This can lead to blood clots and stroke. In fact, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have it, according to the AHA.
The most common symptom of AFib is a quivering or fluttering heartbeat, but others may include dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, and fatigue. If you notice any of these signs, see your doctor to discuss diagnosis and treatment.
But if you notice your face or arm feels droopy, or you have sudden trouble speaking, that could be a sign of stroke. Seek emergency care. Plus, learn these important stroke facts.
Warning Sign #4: Swollen Feet
Heart failure is when the heart muscle becomes weak and can’t pump enough blood for your body to work properly. It also leads to fluid buildup in your tissues.
Common symptoms include swelling in your feet, ankles, or stomach. It can also cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and fatigue, due to fluid buildup around or in your lungs. Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
What You Can Do: Know Your Risk and Take Action
You can’t control all your risk factors for heart disease, but you can put yourself in the driver’s seat with a few healthy habits:
- If you haven’t discussed your heart disease risk factors with your doctor recently, make an appointment.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed foods.
- Exercise regularly, and aim for 30 minutes a day.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Manage any health conditions you have.
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