February is American Heart Month. This observance is a convenient tie-in to Valentine’s Day, also associated with hearts. However, American Heart Month is not meant to remind us about romance, cards, candy or flowers; it’s intended to bring focus on our cardiovascular health.
The term “heart disease” encompasses a wide range of cardiovascular problems. Several diseases and conditions fall under the umbrella of heart disease, which may present with a variety of symptoms.
Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms. The symptoms you experience may depend on the type of arrhythmia you have — heartbeats that are too fast or too slow. Symptoms of an arrhythmia include:
• fluttering heart or racing heartbeat
• slow pulse
• dizziness or fainting spells
• chest pain
Atherosclerosis reduces blood supply to your extremities. In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms of atherosclerosis include:
• coldness or numbness, especially in the limbs
• unusual or unexplained pain
• weakness in your legs and arms
Congenital heart defects are heart problems that develop when a fetus is growing. Some heart defects are never diagnosed. Others may be found when they cause symptoms, such as:
• blue-tinged skin
• swelling of the extremities
• shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• fatigue and low energy
• irregular heart rhythm
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is plaque buildup in the arteries that move oxygen-rich blood through the heart and lungs. Symptoms of CAD include:
• a feeling of pressure or squeezing in the chest
• shortness of breath
• feelings of indigestion or gas
Cardiomyopathy causes the muscles of the heart to grow larger and turn rigid, thick or weak. Symptoms of this condition include:
• swollen legs, especially ankles and feet
• shortness of breath
• pounding or rapid pulse
Heart infections may describe conditions such as endocarditis or myocarditis.
Symptoms of a heart infection include:
• chest pain
• chest congestion or coughing
• skin rash
Women often experience different signs and symptoms of heart disease than men, specifically with regards to CAD and other cardiovascular diseases.
A 2003 study looked at the symptoms most often seen in women who’d experienced a heart attack. The top symptoms didn’t include “classic” heart attack symptoms such as chest pain and tingling. Instead, the study reported that women were more likely to say they experienced anxiety, sleep disturbances, and unexplained fatigue. Eighty percent of the women in the study reported experiencing these symptoms for at least one month before their heart attack occurred. Common heart disease symptoms in women include:
• Dizziness or lightheadedness
• shortness of breath or shallow breathing
• fainting or passing out
• nausea or vomiting
• pain in the jaw, neck or back
• indigestion or gaslike pain in the chest and stomach
• cold sweats
There are many risk factors for heart disease. Some are controllable, and others aren’t. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that approximately 47% of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity or physical inactivity. Smoking, for example, is a controllable risk factor. People who smoke double their risk of developing heart disease. People with diabetes may also be at higher risk for heart disease because high blood glucose levels increase the risk of heart attack, stroke or CAD. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that people who have both high blood pressure and diabetes double their risk for cardiovascular disease.
Uncontrollable risk factors for heart disease include family history, ethnicity, sex and age. Men are at greater risk for heart disease than women. In fact, the CDC estimates between 70 and 89% of all cardiac events in the United States occur in men. Also, age can increase your risk for heart disease. From ages 20 to 59, men and women are at a similar risk for CAD. After age 60, however, the percentage of men affected rises to between 19.9 and 32.2%, compared to 9.7 to 18.8% of women of the same age.
It’s important to take charge of your overall health now, before a diagnosis may be made. This is especially true if you have a family history of heart disease or conditions that increase your risk for heart disease. Taking care of your body and your heart can pay off for many years to come.
Healthy blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are some of the first steps you can take for a healthy heart. A healthy blood pressure is considered less than 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, which is often expressed as “120 over 80” or “120/80 mm Hg.” Higher numbers indicate that the heart is working too hard to pump blood.
Your ideal cholesterol level will depend on your risk factors and heart health history. If you’re at a high risk of heart disease, have diabetes, or have already had a heart attack, your target levels will be below those of people with low or average risk.
Find ways to manage stress. Don’t underestimate chronic stress as a contributor to heart disease. Speak with your doctor if you’re frequently overwhelmed, anxious, or are coping with stressful life events, such as moving, changing jobs, or going through a divorce.
Embrace a healthier lifestyle by eating healthy food and exercising regularly. Make sure to avoid foods high in saturated fat and salt. Doctors recommend 30 to 60 minutes of exercise on most days for a total of 2 hours and 30 minutes each week. Check with your doctor to make sure you can safely meet these guidelines, especially if you already have a heart condition.
Making these changes all at once might not be possible. Discuss with your healthcare provider which lifestyle changes will have the biggest impact. Even small steps toward these goals will help keep you at your healthiest.
Treatment for heart disease depends on the type of heart disease you have as well as how far it has advanced. Treatment falls into three main categories:
Lifestyle choices can help you prevent heart disease. They can also help you treat the condition and prevent it from getting worse. Your diet is one of the first areas you may seek to change. Likewise, getting regular exercise and quitting tobacco can help treat heart disease.
Medications may be necessary to treat certain types of heart disease. Your doctor can prescribe a medication that can either cure or control your heart disease. Medications may also be prescribed to slow or stop the risk for complications.
Surgery or a medical procedure may be necessary in some cases to treat the condition and prevent worsening symptoms.
Heart disease requires a lifetime of treatment and careful monitoring. Many of the symptoms of heart disease can be relieved with medications, procedures and lifestyle changes. When these methods fail, coronary intervention or bypass surgery might be used.
If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of heart disease or if you have risk factors for heart disease, make an appointment to discuss with your doctor. Together, the two of you can weigh your risks, conduct a few screening tests and plan for staying healthy.