Your heart is the MVP (most valuable player) of your body. It is constantly working hard to keep you in the game of life. But sometimes it sends out distress signals, nudging you to listen up.
Heart disease is a common term used to refer to any condition that affects the heart. It can include a range of issues, such as coronary heart disease, heart attacks and irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmias).
Heart disease remains one of the major causes of death worldwide. While the average person is diagnosed later in life, some symptoms can happen decades earlier. Understanding these early warning signs can save lives—even your own.
Tushar Acharya, MD, a cardiologist with Banner – University Medicine, helps us understand the early signs of heart disease, certain things that may be putting you at risk, and simple steps you can take to keep your heart at the top of its game.
The early signs of heart disease
Chest pain and discomfort
“One of the most common early warning signs of heart problems is chest pain,” Dr. Acharya said. “You can feel pain, pressure, tightness or squeezing in your chest or a feeling of fullness.”
Chest pain can be a symptom of poor blood flow to the heart or a heart attack. This type of chest pain is called angina.
The symptoms tend to last more than a few minutes or go away and come back. Sometimes, chest pain can be mistaken for heartburn or indigestion. Pain might also be felt in your neck, jaw, back, stomach and arms.
Shortness of breath
It’s natural to get a bit winded after climbing up a few flights of stairs. But if you find yourself huffing and puffing or gasping for air only after a few stairs, it could be an early sign of heart problems.
“Unexplained shortness of breath that happens with a small amount of activity, when you’re doing something you normally do or comes on suddenly could suggest an issue with the heart,” Dr. Acharya said. “Shortness of breath, swelling and fluid retention in the legs, ankles and feet can suggest heart failure.”
Fast or uneven heartbeat (palpitations)
When your heartbeat feels unusual – either too fast, slow, or uneven – it’s time to pay attention.
“Changes in your heartbeat can happen with too much caffeine, lack of sleep or anxiety, but in some cases it can also be a symptom of a heart rhythm issue like an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation),” Dr. Acharya said.
Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or off balance is a common thing that can happen. It is usually just a minor annoyance, but it might also indicate something serious in your heart.
Some heart conditions that cause dizziness are atrial fibrillation, heart attack and a sudden drop in blood pressure and a type of fainting called neurocardiogenic syncope.
Excessive or unexplained sweating
Do you experience heavy night sweats or sudden cold, clammy sweats? These are symptoms that are sometimes mistaken as menopause but could be a sign of a heart problem.
“Unusual sweating with chest pain, without taking part in physical activity, could be one of the first signs of a heart attack,” Dr. Acharya said.
Your heart and stomach might be more connected than you think. If you experience unexplained nausea, vomiting, indigestion or stomach discomfort, it could be your body’s way of signaling heart trouble.
“Women are more likely to report these symptoms than men,” Dr. Acharya.
Fatigue or extreme tiredness
Are you feeling exhausted without an apparent reason? Your heart might be working overtime to keep up with the demands. If you notice you are constantly tired, even with a good night’s sleep, it’s worth getting checked out by your health care provider.
Am I at risk for heart problems?
If you find yourself recognizing these early signs of heart issues, it might be time to be extra vigilant about your health. Understanding your personal risk factors is the first step in taking proactive measures to keep your heart healthy and happy.
If you are in any of these categories, pay extra attention:
- Age and gender: Risk for heart disease increases with age, and men and women experience different symptoms.
- Family history: Does heart disease run in your family? If your parents or siblings have a history of heart issues, it could increase your risk.
- Smoking: Smoking (including vaping) is a major no-no for heart health. It damages your blood vessels and reduces the amount of oxygen your heart receives.
- High blood pressure and cholesterol: High levels of either can strain your heart and increase the risk of heart disease.
- Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes can take a toll on your heart. Keeping your blood sugar levels in check is important.
- Unhealthy diet: Are your meals heavy on processed foods, saturated fats and a lot of salt? A diet high in these items can contribute to heart problems.
Heart-healthy living made simple
While there are some factors – like age and genetics – that you can’t change, there are simple things you can do that will make your heart say thank you. These include quitting smoking and vaping, getting regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet.
“Swapping out sugary sodas with water and exchanging calorie-heavy, cholesterol-rich and salty foods for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is a good start,” Dr. Acharya said.
Heart-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet are a good option, but talk to your health care provider before changing your diet.
[To find additional healthy options, read 5 Ways to Take Care of Your Heart.]
When to call your health care provider
Call 911 if you or a loved one experience symptoms of a heart attack, become extremely short of breath or lose consciousness. Don’t drive to the hospital if you have a heart attack.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle and managing underlying health conditions like diabetes can help prevent heart problems and heart disease. It’s also a good idea to learn more about the signs of heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest.
Schedule an appointment with your provider or a Banner Health specialist if you are experiencing any unusual symptoms. Please don’t wait for symptoms to go away or shrug them off as nothing.
Your heart works tirelessly for you every day, so remember to treat it with love and care. Pay attention to early signs of heart problems and contact your provider for proper care and treatment.
Take our free Heart Age Test to check your risk for heart disease.
You might also want to check out these other heart-healthy articles for tips: