Identifying heart disease symptoms can save your life.
The dramatic scene is familiar in the movies and on TV: The man clutches his chest and somebody screams, “He’s having a heart attack!”
Though we’ve all seen that Hollywood depiction unfold, it’s important to be aware that heart attack is just one kind of heart disease.
Heart disease is a general term for several problems that, together, kill more Americans than anything else. Identifying symptoms early can help you recognize an emergency or take action to prevent a larger health crisis, said Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D, Physician-in-Chief of Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York and an American Heart Association volunteer.
“There’s a huge incentive to be educated about your health risks and make choices for a healthy lifestyle,” Fuster said.
More than one in three adults have one or more of the damaging conditions associated with heart disease. Many of these conditions are related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, which makes it harder for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke.
Things to Look Out For
- Sudden chest pain could be a sign of a heart attack, but there are other warning signs as well. You might also feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. Or you might have shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
And, although in the movies it’s typically an overweight man having a heart attack, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, too. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women may also experience other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and back or jaw pain. Learn more about angina in women.
- Chest pain during exercise or other physical exertion, called angina, is a common symptom of chronic coronary artery disease (CAD).
If you are experiencing heart palpitations or angina, make an appointment to speak to your doctor, Dr. Fuster said. However, if you are unsure of whether you could be having one of these problems or a heart attack, play it safe and call 9-1-1 right away. If you are having a heart attack, it’s important to “get to the hospital within minutes,” Dr. Fuster said.
- Excessive, acute shortness of breath that is persistent is a heart attack warning sign, but it could indicate other heart problems. Such breathlessness during exercise or other physical exertion may point to problem with the heart valves. When the heart valves aren’t working properly, either not opening wide enough (stenosis), or not closing properly (mitral valve prolapse), they can prevent the heart from pumping efficiently and can create a risk for infection. Shortness of breath may also be caused when the heart muscle becomes inflamed and weakened, and doesn’t contract well – called cardiomyopathy.
How to Avoid Heart Disease Risk
The good news about heart disease is that it can often be prevented through lifestyle choices. Avoiding these risk factors can go a long way:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- Age is another risk factor: Men older than 55 and women older than 60 face increased risks. But otherwise, there is much you can do to avoid heart disease.
“The only risk factor you can’t control is age,” Dr. Fuster said.
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