7 Surprising Signs of an Unhealthy Heart

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We've all read the signs of a heart attack listed on posters in the hospital waiting room. But what if there were other, earlier signs that could alert you ahead of time that your heart was in trouble?

It turns out there are. Researchers have done a lot of work in recent years looking at the signs and symptoms patients experienced in the months or even years leading up to a heart attack. "The heart, together with the arteries that feed it, is one big muscle, and when it starts to fail the symptoms can show up in many parts of the body," says cardiologist Jonathan Goldstein of Saint Michael's Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey. Here are seven surprising clues that your heart needs a check. Any of these signs -- and particularly two or more together -- should send you to the doctor for tests.

Sexual problems

Something cardiologists know but the average guy doesn't: Erectile dysfunction (ED) is one of the best early tip-offs to progressive heart disease. "Today, any patient who comes in with ED should be considered a cardiovascular patient until proven otherwise," says Goldstein. In women, reduced blood flow to the genital area can impede arousal, make it harder to reach orgasm, or make orgasms less satisfying.

Scary stat: Researchers at the Mayo clinic followed men ages 40-49 with erectile dysfunction and found they were twice as likely to develop heart disease as those with no sexual health problems. Another study looked backward and found that two out of three men being treated for cardiovascular disease had suffered from erectile dysfunction, often for years, before they were diagnosed with heart trouble.

Why it happens: Narrowing and hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow to the penis, which can give men trouble when it comes to getting or keeping an erection. And because those arteries are smaller than the ones leading to the heart, erectile dysfunction can occur before any other sign of artery stiffness. Lack of oxygen can also lead to ongoing fatigue and weakness, which can sabotage libido, so lack of desire may accompany lack of success.

What to do: If you or your partner has difficulty getting or maintaining an erection or has problems with sexual satisfaction, that's reason enough to visit your doctor to investigate cardiovascular disease as an underlying cause. Get a full workup to assess possible causes of erectile dysfunction or difficulty with orgasm. (Guys, see your GP, not just a urologist; gals, don't just see an ob/gyn.) If your doctor doesn't mention heart tests, request them.

Snoring, Sleep Apnea, and Other Breathing Problems During Sleep

If you snore loudly enough to keep your sleeping partner awake or to force him or her to resort to earplugs, your heart may be at risk as well. Restricted breathing during sleep -- the underlying cause of snoring -- is linked with all types of cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea, in which breathing briefly stops during sleep, is linked with a higher risk of both cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

Scary stat: Those with sleep apnea were found to have three times the normal risk of having a heart attack within five years.

Why it happens: Sleep-disordered breathing, which includes sleep apnea and a lesser condition known as UARS, lowers the blood oxygen that feeds the heart. Obstructive sleep apnea is thought to damage the right side of the heart, which has to pump harder to support the lungs, which are strained by trying to overcome the airway obstruction.

What to do: Any sleep-related breathing problem is a clue that something's wrong, so call the doctor. She may recommend a sleep study, but get your heart checked out too.

Sore, Swollen, or Bleeding Gums

Sore, swollen, or bleeding gums are symptoms not only of periodontal disease -- in which exposure to bacteria causes the gums to become inflamed and pull away from the teeth -- but also a possible early sign of underlying cardiovascular disease.

Scary stat: A 2010 study by the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) estimated that the prevalence of periodontal disease may be underestimated by as much as 50 percent.

Why it happens: Experts believe that poor circulation due to heart disease could be an underlying cause of periodontal disease. Researchers are also studying whether a common bacteria is 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.

What to do: See a dentist to treat gum disease and prevent the presence of bacteria. Because gum disease can be a red flag for inflammation and circulatory problems, ask your doctor if ongoing gum symptoms warrant a checkup.

Puffy or Swollen Legs or Feet

If you notice that your feet swell enough to make your shoes tight; your ankles, wrists, or fingers are noticeably puffy; or there are deep pressure marks or indents when you take off socks or hose, you may have a problem with fluid retention. Also called edema, fluid retention can be a sign of coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

Scary stat: More than 80 million people have one or more forms of cardiovascular disease, and approximately 900,000 people die from it each year.

Why it happens: Fluid retention occurs when the heart doesn't pump strongly enough and blood doesn't carry waste products away from tissues. Edema usually starts in the feet, ankles, fingers, hands, and legs because they're furthest from the heart, where circulation is poorer.

What to do: Report problems with edema to your doctor, who can run tests that may indicate CAD and can determine if your heart function is normal.

Irregular Heartbeat or Arrhythmia

An early sign that something in the cardiovascular system is out of whack is irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. It may feel like your heart is skipping beats, beating too fast, or pounding too hard.

Scary stat: Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of sudden death for both men and women because it can lead to both heart attack and stroke.

Why it happens: The most common cause of irregular heartbeat is CAD, which restricts blood flow to the heart, straining the electrical system that keeps the heartbeat regular and coordinates it with other functions. Heart failure can also cause arrhythmias because the weakened heart overcompensates by beating harder and faster.

What to do: An EKG can measure the electrical activity of your heart, including the regularity of the heartbeat. A stress test, which measures your heart rate while you walk on a treadmill, can determine if your heart is pumping properly.

Constriction or Aching in the Chest or Shoulder

The most common symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD) is angina, a type of chest pain. Angina (officially called angina pectoris) is different from the sharp clutching pain of a heart attack; it's likely to feel like a deep ache or a constriction or weight on the chest, and it may worsen when you draw in a breath. One of the reasons angina is often missed is that it feels different to different people; to some it's more of a heaviness, fullness, or pressure rather than pain. It can also be mistaken for indigestion or heartburn when the pain occurs lower down in the abdominal area. The tightness, constriction, or pain may also occur in the shoulder, neck, jaw, arm, or upper back, where it may be mistaken for a pulled muscle.

A tip-off to angina versus a pulled muscle or gastrointestinal problem is that you're likely to experience the problem repeatedly rather than to have one isolated or prolonged episode.

Scary stat: According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 17 million people are living with angina. Cases of angina are divided almost equally between men and women, with men being slightly more at risk.

Why it happens: When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, it deprives the heart muscle of blood, making it feel squeezed. Most people with stable angina find that episodes are most often triggered by anything that puts an additional strain on the heart, such as exercise or stress.

What to do: If you're diagnosed with angina, your doctor will recommend resting when episodes occur; or she may prescribe nitroglycerin, which relaxes the coronary arteries and other blood vessels, increasing blood supply to the heart and easing its workload.

Shortness of Breath

An early sign that something is wrong with a major bodily system is shortness of breath, typically with exercise, exertion, and stress. (Typically, shortness of breath indicates either early-stage heart disease or early-stage lung disease, and it's not possible to know which it is without seeing a doctor.) It may feel like you can't catch your breath, or you may notice a feeling of compression in the chest and lungs, making it difficult to take a deep breath. Another breathing symptom of poor circulation may be labored breathing, which occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs. If you notice that your breathing problems are worse at night or anytime you lie down, that can also indicate a heart problem.

Scary stat: In a landmark study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Institute, 95 percent of women who'd had heart attacks reported experiencing unusual symptoms in the weeks and months before the attack, and 40 percent reported shortness of breath.

Why it happens: When your heart isn't pumping strongly enough, less oxygen circulates in your blood. The result is shortness of breath; you might feel like you do at high altitude or when you've run for the bus, unable to draw enough oxygen into your lungs.

What to do: Shortness of breath, either with exercise and stress or all the time, is always a reason to see the doctor for a checkup, since it can be a symptom of a number of serious conditions.

6 Silent Heart Symptoms You Should Know

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

about 2 years, said...

Hi,im 44years old, and im starting to feel this way, I have axiety everyday ... I dont feel the errection even in the morning... I havent sex with my wife for 3 or 4months now... I read most 7 signs and All of the signs were presence exept of sleep apnea which i dont know... My nose is always stuffy which i blamed it on my sinusitis, but it happen now most of the day.. I dont have problem with night sleep but its on during day time...a little bit of bleeding gums and over a year my teeth begin to have a gap or distorted alighnment...my feel on the right started to feel tiight... I was diagnosed with periperal desease when i was 35 years old when my left feet swell, dr says i dont have good blood serculation in my leg.. This week i went to clinic to have EKG they found that i have sinus trachycardia...a fast heart rate, which i presume due to my axiety... They also found irregularities in my heart beat... Dr. Ask me to have chest xrays and see a cardiologiest.. My 2 shoulder hurts all the time which I thought due to my work as a caregiver, i lift patient most of the time.. I may have shortness of breathing which i could not notice, but there are times i feel running out of air while talking .. Im hopping to see a cardiologiest anytime after the chest xray result... By theway i havent mention that im having a terrible ACID REFLUX and constant heartburn,blooting etc...which was present also in your 7signs.. Im scared to death while reading this 7signs ... My axiety rase to the roof and i feel terrible.. I dont know what to do.. I dont have insurance, i dont have money either to support this.. Im scared for me and my family, my son is still young and needs me... Pls do help me..

over 2 years, said...

EKGs are highly suspect in my opinion and terribly inaccurate. These things are electronic where the graph changes on the least little body movement. You can check that out for your self by using one of those Pulse Oximeters and see how the pulse is very much affected by the slightest movement of your body. I think the medical establishment need to go back to the old way of checking for Arrhythmia and other conditions. Takes much longer but can be trusted more. So the convenience of electronic devices for the sake of speed is not smart because someone's life can be put in jeopardy by given meds they shouldn't have.

over 2 years, said...


over 2 years, said...

good info no pop up ads love it

over 2 years, said...

Very good article for me. And timely too. I made it to 98 years and I still take no prescription medications. I think my time has come. But I am finally getting short of breath on walking a quarter mile. Someone called it "heavy legs." I will see my doc about that. I can appreciate all of you complaining about ED. I can't remember when I had anything better than a plain old wet noodle in the sink. I am talking about 30 years or so.!

over 2 years, said...

Tell me about it . 5 years ago my wife and i were having sex all of a sudden my errection dropped . no matter what i did i could not regain my erection . this went on for 2 years with trying everything movies , magazines , nothing worked . it was driving me crazy because i was always ready at the mear mention of sex , for hours without loseing my erection . 2 years ago i had my physical and my dr looked at my e k g and asked if i knew i had atrial fibrilation . he suggested i see a cardiologist . i ignored his advice for a year but found i had no energy to even walk to the bed room . to make a long story short i wound up having open heart surgery to repair twoo mitral valves plus one bypass last year . its been a long road to recovery but im getting there . and yes , my sex life is back in full swing .

over 2 years, said...

I am 83 years of age and have all these symptoms and am under Cardiovascular Thoracic care and watching. I have, especially, trouble breathing when shopping or exercising more than normal and rest often. I have a pacemaker; am under medication and am wondering if a portable oxygen machine might be helpful? Around the house, I'm fine unless I exercise more than normal, but have improved significantly with the addition of Levothyroxine 50 mcg. and feel much better since taking it.

over 2 years, said...

I am scared to death now, I have all 7 of these Heart attack signs. Wow. Is there a way to come back from this? I am only 41 years old, and this has really put the fear of God in me. Wow. any advise would be great. Thanks, Shaun

over 2 years, said...

Oh please.... My heart has been skipping beats since my 20's and my BP has never gone over 118/80. I've had all the symptoms mentioned here, and all that the hospital ER did was hook me up to an EKG for 15 seconds and tell me to go home.

over 2 years, said...

Doctors and those who manufacture pharma for the doctors are always proclaiming their profit agendas with fear and scare stats. If we eat right, sleep right, think right, and exercise right, the body will function for a long time without all these symptoms. These purveyors of fear would have us believe that the human body needs medical care from the cradle to the grave. How stupid and how stupendous is their manipulation.

over 2 years, said...

Well guess I,ll just have to buy some insurance, my husband has erectile problems, thinks its his blood pressure meds, and won,t ask his female Dr. nothing, now what?

over 2 years, said...

Something I always wanted to know but felt uncomfortable to ask is- I often would have erection fears of not getting and keeping it when ready to have sex with a female. But , If i had a thought about sex with a male,I would never have a problem as I immediately got the erection. Does that ever get brought up with a doctor where a person could be homosexual and their libido is not the same . I am 81 now so not concerned but throughout my life, I have noticed my problem was my wanting to perform and not embarrassed with women. Doctors should ask about homosexual desires if someone told told them they do have erection problems. If it happened to me ---it no doubt happened to others.

over 2 years, said...

While I was in my late teens to early 20's I was living with my mother & step dad & when I tried to go in my room & take care of the male situation my mother would come banging on the door & she told me that she will find out what I am doing when I lock the door so I just quite masterbateing & now have heart trouble, my mother would not give me any privacy to take care of my personal life until I told my Dr.in texas what was going on then she left me alone

over 2 years, said...

Just read your article on the unhealthy heart. Very interesting I go to the VA for my medical problems and I have over half of the symptoms that you have in your article. Should I be looking for a certain DR. to tell these symptoms to?

over 2 years, said...

do women have any signs?

over 2 years, said...

In Feb 2014, I had a heart attack. I had a blockage in the main artery. My dr. put in a stent & have recuperated very good. I just wanted to say I was very lucky with it being the main artery & to let everyone know if in doubt at all, go to the hosp anyway. My pain was all under my arms, across my back & chest. Being a female, our pain seems to be different than men. I never had any of the symptoms that men do. So to the female readers, please pay attention to your body. Read this article completely. Thank you