Skip to content

I'm a Doctor and Here's How to Tell If You Have a Bad Heart, Including Measuring Your Sodium and Blood Sugar Levels

Experts explain what it means to have a bad heart and signs warning signs to never ignore. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, but there's many ways you can prevent and avoid it. Lifestyle choices play a major role in heart disease and by eliminating bad habits, the risk is greatly reduced. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Ninety percent of the nearly 18 million heart disease cases worldwide could be prevented by people adopting a healthier diet, doing regular exercise, and not smoking."

Dr. Sanjeev Aggarwal, a cardiovascular surgeon and Medical Advisor at Hello Heart tells us, "Performing regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco use and making heart-healthy food decisions (reducing intake of salt, fat, added sugar, and alcohol) are simple lifestyle choices that can dramatically lower the risk of heart disease. Home self-measurement of blood pressure is an important tool in diagnosing and controlling high blood pressure. Several clinical studies have demonstrated improved diagnosis and treatment of high blood pressure with self-measured blood pressure at home, an important step to avoiding heart disease."

An alarming amount of people have heart disease in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, "Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing 382,820 people in 2020. About 20.1 million adults age 20 and older have CAD (about 7.2%). In 2020, about 2 in 10 deaths from CAD happen in adults less than 65 years old." Recognizing the signs can be life-saving and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with doctors who explain what it means to have a bad heart and symptoms to watch out for. As always please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What It Means to Have a Bad Heart and Signs You Have One

drink heart attack

Dr. Aggarwal says, "The heart is the main pump in our body that helps deliver oxygen-rich blood to all of our organs.  There are many different forms of heart disease including blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, disease of the heart valves inside the heart, and processes that affect the actual muscle of the heart. All of these states can lead to conditions where the heart can not function adequately as  a pump to deliver blood.  Classic symptoms of heart disease can include chest pain, shortness of breath at rest or with exertion, fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting." 

Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies explains, "When we say someone has a "bad heart," we can mean many different things. Maybe we mean they're cruel and unkind or not in good physical health. But what does it mean to have a bad heart from a cardiac point of view? Two main types of heart disease are coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure. Coronary artery disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become blocked or narrowed. 

This can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, and an increased risk of a heart attack. Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart doesn't pump blood as efficiently as it should. This can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, extremities, and abdomen. Symptoms of congestive heart failure include fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling. Both types of heart disease are serious and can be life-threatening. If you think you have a heart problem, it's essential to see a doctor immediately. With early diagnosis and treatment, many people with heart disease can lead long, healthy lives."


Misconceptions About Heart Disease

older man experiencing chest pain, heart attack

Dr. Aggarwal tells us, "One of the biggest misconceptions about heart disease is that all patients experience classic symptoms like crushing chest pain, left arm pain, or jaw pain. Many times, there are less obvious signs that can point to a larger cardiovascular problem, including fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, upper back pain, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort which is often mistaken for indigestion." 

According to Dr. Mitchell, "One of the most common misconceptions about heart disease is that it only affects older adults. While it is true that the risk of developing heart disease increases with age, this does not mean that younger people are immune. Another common misconception is that heart disease is only a problem for men. While it is true that men are more likely to develop heart disease than women, this does not mean that women are not at risk. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. 

Finally, there is a misconception that heart disease is not preventable. While some risk factors for heart disease cannot be controlled, such as family history, many lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of developing this condition. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking. By understanding the facts about heart disease, people can be better prepared to protect themselves and their loved ones from this potentially deadly condition."


How to Tell if You Have a Bad Heart

drink heart attack

Dr. Mitchell explains, "There are several different ways to tell if you have a bad heart. One way is to look at your family history. If anyone in your immediate family has had heart disease, you are at a higher risk of developing it. Another way to tell is by looking at your personal health history. For example, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, you are at an increased risk for heart disease. Finally, you can look at your lifestyle choices. If you smoke, don't exercise, or eat an unhealthy diet, these all increase your risk for heart disease.

There are also a few different symptoms of a bad heart that you can look out for. One symptom is chest pain or discomfort. This pain can feel tightness, fullness, or heavy pressure in the chest. It can come and go, or it can be constant. Another symptom is shortness of breath. This can happen when you are exerting yourself or when you are at rest. You may also experience fatigue, dizziness, or lightheadedness. These are all signs that you should see a doctor get checked out for heart disease."


Diet Plays a Role in Heart Disease

Man eating pizza having a takeaway at home relaxing resting

According to Dr. Mitchell, "A heart-healthy diet is low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugar. It's also high in fiber from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Eating this way can help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. When it comes to fat, what matters most is the type of fat you eat. Of the three primary fat-saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated—saturated and trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol more than polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. This increases your risk for heart disease.

Sodium is another essential part of a heart-healthy diet. Too much sodium can cause high blood pressure—a significant risk factor for heart disease. Most of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods like frozen dinners, lunch meats, chips, canned soups and vegetables, bread, and fast food. Eating foods high in fiber can also help reduce your risk of heart disease by helping lower your cholesterol levels and keeping you regular (preventing constipation). Fiber is found in whole grains like oatmeal and wheat bread; legumes such as beans and lentils; certain fruits including pears and apples; and vegetables like peas and broccoli.

One way to ensure you're eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods is to fill half your plate with fruits & vegetables at every meal—aim for a rainbow of colors for the most benefit. Make the other half lean protein, plus whole grains. And limit highly processed foods, sugary drinks, sweets, and red meat as much as possible. Small changes like these can make a big difference in your heart health."


Early Detection Makes a Big Difference

woman holding heart

Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, "One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is to detect it early. Many tests and screenings can be done to check for heart disease, most of which are quick and painless. The earlier heart disease is detected, the easier it is to treat. In many cases, early detection can even save lives. Knowing your family history is important, but lifestyle choices have the most significant impact on most people. Get your cholesterol, blood sugars, and blood pressure regularly and work on managing these levels.

People can also do a lot to monitor their heart health and avoid heart disease. One of the best things people can do is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco products can all help to reduce the risk of heart disease. People should also be sure to get regular checkups with their doctor to detect any problems early. By taking these steps, people can significantly reduce their risk of developing heart disease."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather