7 Surprising Signs of an Unhealthy Heart
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
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