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5 Things to Know About Heart Disease and Signs You Have it

Learn what a cardiovascular surgeon says you should know about heart disease and signs to look out for. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart disease still remains the leading cause of death in the United States and the statistics are alarming. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, "One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that's 1 in every 5 deaths." 

There are many types of heart disease and the most common one is, " coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects the blood flow to the heart. Decreased blood flow can cause a heart attack," the CDC states. Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S has a heart attack, but there are several ways to help prevent or greatly reduce the risk. The Cleveland Clinic states, "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."

Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Sanjeev Aggarwal, cardiovascular surgeon and Medical Advisor at Hello Heart  who explains, "One of the most effective things that individuals can do is track and manage their current health conditions, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Performing regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, and making heart-healthy food decisions (reducing intake of salt, fat, added sugar, and alcohol) are lifestyle choices that can dramatically lower the risk of heart disease and be life-saving." He adds, "Empowering patients in their own healthcare is one of the greatest weapons we have in the fight against heart disease. Tracking your blood pressure at home is an easy way to keep a pulse on your heart health. It can help you make the correlations between how lifestyle impacts your blood pressure and overall heart health." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Heart Disease is Still the Leading Killer When it's Preventable

Young woman suffering from breathing problem near window indoors.

Dr. Aggarwal says, "Heart disease is the leading cause of mortality for both men and women, claiming more lives annually than all solid organ cancers combined. High blood pressure remains one of the leading risk factors for heart disease and affects almost half of the U.S. population. Despite the fact that hypertension remains one of the leading risk factors for heart disease, public awareness of the risks of hypertension remains limited. 

An online survey by the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association found that of the 1,000 adults surveyed, just over a third carried a diagnosis of hypertension. Approximately 40% of those surveyed indicated not knowing what their blood pressure is. It simply comes down to a lack of awareness and education around the diseases, its risk factors, and adequate control."


Risk Factors Cause Silent Damage

bad heartbeat

Dr. Aggarwal shares, "I think the most important thing people must know about heart disease is that the risk factors do their damage silently, and that it's important to take steps to prevent and address those risks. Cardiovascular disease can affect all parts of your body. High blood pressure, one of the leading risk factors for heart disease, is an independent risk factor for heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure and a host of other health care issues. The good news is that high blood pressure is easy to check, does not require an invasive test or blood draw to measure, and can be evaluated on a regular basis from home. 

The American Heart Association has released guidelines recommending home self-measurement of blood pressure as an important tool in evaluating the effectiveness of treatment in people diagnosed with high blood pressure. Several clinical studies have demonstrated improved diagnosis and treatment of high blood pressure with self-measured blood pressure at home. If heart disease isn't managed, it can potentially affect other organs and cause kidney failure, liver failure, loss of vision, and more."


Not All Heart Disease Signs Are Classic Symptoms

woman holding heart

Dr. Aggarwal explains, "Not all patients who have life-threatening heart disease manifest the classic symptoms we often hear about, such as crushing chest pain, left arm pain, or jaw pain. Most individuals are aware of the classic heart attack symptoms, but there are some less obvious signs that can point to a larger cardiovascular problem. Other symptoms may include fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, upper back pain,  nausea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort which is often mistaken for indigestion."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Sometimes heart disease may be "silent" and not diagnosed until a person experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, or an arrhythmia. When these events happen, symptoms may include:

Heart attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).

Heart failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins." 


Risk Factors for Heart Disease Can be Different for Women

Woman touching her heart while sitting at the table in her big office.

Dr. Aggarwal advises "It's important to be aware of what can increase women's risk for heart disease. Some of the main risk factors include hypertension, low level of HDL cholesterol (a.k.a. "good cholesterol"), or a high level of LDL cholesterol (a.k.a. "bad cholesterol"), diabetes, lack of exercise, smoking, depression and stress, family history, and obesity. While there are common risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol that affect everyone, many people may not be aware that there are some risk factors that have sex-based differences. For example, guidelines for optimal cholesterol levels vary between men and women."

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Several traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity — affect both women and men. But other factors may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women.

-Stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's. Depression may make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment for other health conditions.

–Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than are men with diabetes. Also, because diabetes can change the way women feel pain, there's an increased risk of having a silent heart attack — without symptoms.

–Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men."


Heart Attack Symptoms Can Be Different for Women

heart disease

Dr. Aggarwal tells us, "Heart attacks in women more often present with atypical symptoms when compared to men, which can contribute to delays in diagnosis in women and adverse outcomes. While men typically experience the classic symptoms of chest-and-left-arm pain people usually associate with heart attacks, this isn't necessarily true for women. Atypical symptoms that can be seen more commonly in women include discomfort in the chest, pain in the upper back, neck or throat pain, pain in either arm, sweating, heartburn, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Because many of these symptoms are non-specific, women's heart attack symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions such as anxiety which lead to delays in diagnosis, resulting in higher mortality rates in women with heart attacks when compared to men."

The Mayo Clinic states, "Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper belly (abdomen) discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Heartburn (indigestion)

These symptoms may be vague and not as noticeable as the crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. This might be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries but also in the smaller ones that supply blood to the heart — a condition called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease. Compared with men, women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, or even when asleep. Emotional stress can play a role in triggering heart attack symptoms in women."

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