Many people associate heart disease with obvious symptoms, like chest pain.
But there are some not-so-obvious connections, like swollen feet or bleeding gums, that should also merit a heart check from your doctor.
The classic red flags for a heart attack are familiar to anyone who has watched medical dramas on television.
The patient, usually an older man, starts wheezing and gasping for breath. Then he clutches his chest, staggers, and eventually falls over.
In real life, the signs and symptoms of heart disease are much more varied and subtle.
Signs Versus Symptoms of Heart Disease
First, some definitions. Heart disease symptoms are indications that you feel or experience, while a sign of heart disease is something your doctor can see or find.
Obvious heart disease symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain.
But your doctor will also look for common heart disease signs during an examination or in a patient interview.
Knowing the signs of heart disease is important because you may have them before you have any of the common heart disease symptoms. Letting your doctor know about these warning signs could help you get early treatment for heart disease.
“Signs like ankle swelling or weight gain do not necessarily mean you have heart disease, but taken together with other symptoms of heart disease, laboratory studies, and family history, they are an important part of making a diagnosis of heart disease or heart failure associate.
Swelling of the Feet and Lower Legs
Retention of fluid in the feet and legs is known as peripheral edema. Edema may appear as “sock marks” on your legs and ankles at the end of the day, especially if you wear tight socks or hose.
Mild peripheral edema is common. Your doctor may check for this sign by pressing a finger against your ankle or shin bone to see if depression or dent is left behind.
This is called “pitting edema” and it could indicate congestive heart failure.
Edema may be a sign of heart failure because when your heart is not pumping well, fluid from inside your blood vessels tends to leak out into surrounding tissues.
The legs and ankles are common areas for edema because of the effects of gravity.
“Peripheral edema may be caused by a host of issues,” says Dr. Orringer. “The bottom line is that most people with peripheral edema do not have heart disease, but it could be an important sign if there are other signs and symptoms of heart failure.”
Male Pattern Baldness
“If you watched any of the royal weddings, you might have noticed that Prince William is balding on the top of his head.
This type of balding of the crown of the head in young men may be a sign of an increased risk for heart disease,” says Orringer.
Several large studies have confirmed the link between baldness and heart disease.
Compared with men with a full head of hair, men with crown loss have an increased risk of heart disease of about 23 percent.
This link may be due to too much of the male hormone testosterone, which interferes with hair growth on the head and causes hardening of the arteries.
That doesn’t mean you are doomed to heart disease if you are bald, but it does suggest you should be screened more carefully for other signs and symptoms of heart disease.
Yellow Bumps on the Skin
Xanthomas are deposits of fat that build up under the skin. They may appear as small yellow bumps or as flat, wide plaques on your elbows, knees, hands, feet, or buttocks.
A type of xanthoma called xanthelasma palpebrarum appears on the eyelids.
These yellow, fat deposits can potentially be signs of heart disease because they may indicate high levels of fats in the blood.
“Xanthomas may be a sign of a rare, inherited type of blood disorder in which high levels of triglycerides accumulate in the blood.
Xanthomas may also be a sign of increased cholesterol, and they may disappear once cholesterol levels are under control,” says Orringer.
Swollen, sore, or bleeding gums are usually a sign of poor oral hygiene, but may also be an important sign of heart disease.
“The association between gum disease and heart disease is the real deal,” says Orringer. “There is plenty of research available now that backs up this connection.”
Gum disease and heart disease may be linked because they are both signs of poor circulation, or there could be common bacteria that are involved in both gum disease and plaque buildup inside coronary arteries.
The link may also have something to do with the body’s response to prolonged inflammation. In any case, taking better care of your teeth and gums may be a good way to cut down your risk for heart disease.
The weakening of the heart muscle accompanied by extreme emotional stress, grief, or loss, especially in women, is called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome.
When this occurs, surging stress hormones, especially adrenaline, trigger cardiac pain that feels a lot like a heart attack, often with heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and flushing.
But unlike during a real heart attack, the arteries are not blocked. This potentially serious and often overlooked condition is more common in women than in men; in fact, men make up for only 10 percent of diagnosed cases.
Signs of Heart Failure
Heart failure means the heart is not functioning as well as it should. It doesn’t mean the heart has failed. Another term for heart failure is congestive heart failure or CHF.
Heart failure gradually gets worse over time. Some early warning signs may include:
Weight Gain If your heart starts to fail and fluid starts to build up in your tissue, causing edema, you might see a sudden weight gain.
Frequent Urination Heart failure may cause decreased blood flow to the kidneys, which causes you to retain more fluid. One of the signs of this fluid may be frequent urination.
Cataracts Although the exact cause of the relationship between cataracts and heart disease is not known, studies show that people who have cataracts are at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
“This link is probably more of an association than a sign of heart disease,” says Orringer.
Nighttime Cough “One of the signs of heart failure may be the buildup of fluid in the chest and heart when lying flat at night. This increased fluid can cause a nighttime cough,” explains Orringer.
Remember that all these heart disease signs may have many different causes. They do not mean you have or will get heart disease.
But combined with other heart disease signs and symptoms, your blood tests, and your family history, they give your doctor the best chance to find heart disease early and keep you in good health.
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