The image is a familiar one — a man hunched over, clutching his chest in pain. It's the universal symbol of a heart attack. Chest pain, along with shortness of breath and pain radiating down the arm, are often considered the standard symptoms of a major cardiac event.
But there are more subtle symptoms of heart disease, a condition that includes heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure.
Here's everything you need to know about six lesser-known heart disease symptoms and tips to stay on top of your heart health.
1. Sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea, which almost always causes loud snoring, is not necessarily a symptom of heart disease. But neither is it simply a noisy habit that can keep your partner up at night. Whether it's moderate or severe, it may damage your heart as you struggle to breathe while sleeping.
Because sleep apnea causes a drop-in oxygen in the blood several times at night, it can cause stress to the body. This can lead to cardiovascular problems, such as arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat), high blood pressure, heart attack and heart failure if left untreated.
If you snore, it's important to find a sleep specialist to address the issue.
Dizziness, or light-headedness, may indicate that your brain isn't getting enough blood, especially in women who often have atypical symptoms of heart problems. Dizziness could indicate an arrhythmia, heart damage or heart valve problem like aortic stenosis.
If you're experiencing dizziness along with other heart disease symptoms, get to the emergency room as quickly as possible.
A good workout isn't the only thing that can cause you to break a sweat. If you start sweating suddenly — what's often described as a “cold sweat” — while experiencing other symptoms, it could mean you're having a heart attack.
It is a sign of stress to the body if you are sweating more than usual, without exertion. Sweating associated with discomfort in the arm, neck, jaw or chest or accompanied by shortness of breath should be taken seriously as it could be a sign of coronary artery disease. In this case, get to a hospital immediately.
4. Fatigue or exhaustion
Most of us can feel worn out after a long day of dealing with work, kids and a mile-long to-do list. Extreme, unexplained fatigue, however — the kind that leaves you too beat to climb a short flight of stairs or carry your groceries — could also be a warning sign of something more serious, like a heart attack or heart disease, especially in women.
One study found that more than 70 percent of women who had heart attacks experienced unusual fatigue in the preceding months. Other common symptoms included sleep disturbance and shortness of breath. Some women in the study reported ignoring their fatigue and other symptoms. Other women who tried repeatedly to seek medical care had their symptoms misdiagnosed or dismissed by their physicians.
5. Erectile dysfunction
Heart disease and erectile dysfunction (ED) may both be caused by poor circulation, but problems in the bedroom usually occur first. This means that ED could be alerting you to current or future heart disease.
Since both erectile dysfunction and heart attacks are caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, many patients who have cardiovascular disease also experience ED. Even more, patients with coronary artery disease or heart failure often have other medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes, which can cause ED.
6. Tooth loss
Tooth loss can be a sign of poor oral hygiene, but it may also signal a heart problem. Research from the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that middle-aged adults (45 to 69 years old) who experienced tooth loss have a higher risk for coronary heart disease.
Participants who lost two or more teeth during the eight-year follow-up were at a 16 percent greater risk of developing heart disease than those with no tooth loss. The connection between heart disease and tooth loss is not entirely clear, but research suggests inflammation may play a role in both.
Tooth loss may not be cause for immediate concern, but it's a good opportunity to speak with a healthcare provider about ways to reduce your heart disease risk factors.
Other unusual signs and symptoms
Be on the lookout for a few other unfamiliar heart disease warning signs:
- Leg swelling when upright and mild cough and shortness of breath while lying down may be signs of heart failure.
- Undiagnosed sleep apnea and early morning headaches could indicate high blood pressure.
- Depression and anxiety may be associated with heart disease.
To keep your heart in tip-top shape, stick with a healthy diet, get daily exercise, keep stress levels low and get adequate sleep. If you think you're experiencing a cardiac event, don't wait. Call 911 immediately.
Want to know more about your risk of developing heart disease? Take our free heart health quiz to better understand your cardiovascular well-being and any action steps you should take to improve it.
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