What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Disease?

By Korin Miller |

It’s possible to have heart disease and not even know it. Here’s how to protect yourself.

graphic of human heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and the risk goes up as you get older. Unfortunately, it’s possible to have heart disease and not know it.

“It is frequently a silent disease, at least initially,” says Susan Besser, M.D., a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

However, some people do have early stealthy symptoms. Here’s what you should know about heart disease—and how to protect yourself.

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a blanket term that encompasses many problems related to the heart. Sometimes, it’s called cardiovascular disease, but technically, cardiovascular disease can include any issue within the entire circulatory system like stroke (which affects blood flow to the brain) and peripheral artery disease (which most often affects blood flow to the legs).

The most common type of heart disease, coronary heart disease (a.k.a. coronary artery disease), is a disorder of the arteries that provide oxygen-rich blood to the heart. A heart attack is what happens when an artery becomes blocked.

Other forms of heart disease include rhythm disorders (like atrial fibrillation) and congestive heart failure (when the heart muscle becomes weakened), among others.

Symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease you have. Here’s a breakdown of four common types and what to watch for.

1. High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) can lead to a heart attack or stroke, and it’s often called a “silent killer” because it doesn’t usually cause any noticeable symptoms.

It’s very common in older adults: 69 percent of women and 64 percent of men between the ages of 65 and 74 have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s even more common after age 75.

Getting your blood pressure checked at least once a year is the best way to find out if you have this problem. While you can’t control everything that affects your risk—age, gender, or family history—you’re not powerless.

Blood pressure can be controlled in most people, and it doesn’t always require prescription meds. Check out our guide to eight simple lifestyle adjustments that can help lower blood pressure.

2. Coronary Artery Disease or Heart Attack

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.

Possible symptoms of coronary artery disease often include shortness of breath (when you exert yourself or when you’re resting) and angina (chest discomfort or pain), says Jennifer H. Haythe, M.D., codirector of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center. If you have these symptoms, be sure to tell your doctor, she says.

If you’re having a heart attack, you may experience obvious warning signs like crushing chest pain—but not always. Sometimes, and especially in women, heart attack signs may not include chest pain and may be subtle. Signs can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain and pressure in your arm, shoulder, or stomach
  • Becoming very sweaty for no obvious reason
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, back pain, or jaw pain: Women are more likely to experience these signs than men.

When these symptoms come on suddenly, you should consider that you might be having a heart attack and go to the emergency room or call 911 right away.

If you’ve previously had a heart attack, your top priority is preventing a second one. These nine tips can help.

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3. Atrial Fibrillation

Heart rhythm disorders cause an irregular heartbeat, and the most common type is atrial fibrillation (a.k.a. AFib). While there are different types of AFib, all can increase your risk of stroke. In fact, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have it, according to American Heart Association. That’s why it’s important to know the signs.

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.

4. Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (a.k.a. CHF or heart failure) is when the heart muscle becomes weak and can’t pump enough blood for your body. It also leads to fluid buildup in your lungs and other tissues. As with most heart conditions, your risk increases as you get older; about 10 in 1,000 adults over 65 have it, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Common symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, fatigue, and swelling in your feet, ankles, or stomach. Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. He or she can confirm a diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

What You Can Do: Know Your Risk Factors and Take Action

Heart disease doesn’t always cause noticeable symptoms, so it’s very important to understand your risk factors. While anyone can get heart disease, your risk is higher than average if you have a family history of it, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, or diabetes, Dr. Besser says.

If you haven’t discussed your heart disease risk factors with your doctor recently, make an appointment for a wellness visit. And whether you’re focused on prevention or management of heart disease, regular exercise can improve your health—and quality of life. Talk to your doctor about ways you can exercise safely, and check your SilverSneakers eligibility or find a location here.

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