Did you know that almost every other American adult has some type of heart disease? It is the leading cause of death, claiming more lives – almost 1 in 4 – than cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses.
Not everyone faces the same risk of cardiac disease. Younger, healthier people are generally safer from having heart problems than are aging folks with a sedentary lifestyle.
Key risk factors for heart disease include:
- Over 60 years old
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Tobacco use
- Strong family history of heart disease
Vincent Bufalino, MD, speaking for the American Heart Association, said:
“The more risk factors you have, the more you should be concerned about anything that might be heart-related.”
No one is immune from inheriting a bum ticker or developing one after an injury or a debilitating physical condition. Knowing what signals are indicators for heart attacks can be a life-saver, particularly for those at higher risk.
Symptoms that appear after exertion and are relieved by rest might well be linked to heart function.
Unlike the movies where a heart attack is signaled by clutching the heart area of the chest, wincing in excruciating pain, and collapsing into a conveniently-placed chair, in real life the onset of cardio failure may be so subtle it is mistaken for something else, something harmless and passing.
Call 911 if someone experiences a sudden, intense heart attack or if mild pain or discomfort is followed by these symptoms:
Chest pain (angina) in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and then returns, often feeling like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Pain can occur while resting or during physical activities.
According to Charles Chambers, MD, who directs the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute, patients report a variety of experiences:
“Everyone has a different word for that feeling. Some people say it’s like an elephant is sitting on them. Other people say it’s like a pinching or burning.”
Discomfort or pain in other areas of the upper body: one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. Pain often begins in the chest and radiates outward to the extremities. The classic symptom is true: pain from the left arm spreads down that side of the body. Dr. Chambers said:
“It almost always starts from the chest and moves outward. But I have had some patients who have mainly arm pain that turned out to be heart attacks.”
Lightheadedness, dizziness, feeling faint or vertigo (the feeling of falling) may happen when a person stands up or changes position too fast or hasn’t eaten or drunk enough.
But if you suddenly lose your balance and experience discomfort in your chest, get professional help immediately. If you have a home blood pressure kit, a low reading may mean that the heart isn’t able to pump correctly.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort that came on suddenly, feeling fatigued, exhausted or winded after physical activity that formerly presented no problem (such as climbing stairs or bringing in groceries from the car) or unexplained weakness may all herald heart disease, especially in women.
The rapid onset of significant changes is a more important sign of cardiac compromise than everyday aches and pains.
Breaking out in a cold sweat for no clear reason could red-flag an impending heart attack. Call 911 immediately and arrange transportation to a nearby hospital – don’t drive yourself.
Persistent cough that produces a white or pink mucus may be an indicator that the heart can’t pump fast enough so blood leaks back into the lungs.
Swollen legs, feet, and ankles may be the body’s way of saying the heart is operating inefficiently. Blood backed up in the veins causes edema (water retention and bloating). A failing heart can reduce the kidneys’ ability to extract and excrete excess water and sodium (salt) from the body, causing bloating.
Heart arrhythmia or an irregular heartbeat may be due to nerves, stress or exertion. People who sense that their hearts are skipping beats, racing or slowing down without just cause should consult with their healthcare professionals to rule out cardiac disease.
Reducing caffeine and fatty foods (such as bacon) can ease chest discomfort and steady an erratic heartbeat.
Other signs include nausea, indigestion, vomiting, and heartburn.
Both genders experience chest pain as the most common shared symptom before their heart attacks but women are slightly more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Most of us have probably had some of the above symptoms at one time or another in our lives – so when is it time to call for professional help?
“If you’re not sure, get it checked out,” cautioned Dr. Chambers.