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February is also known as American Heart Month. During this month we seek to educate about the signs and symptoms of heart disease, which affects costs the US $219 billion dollars each year. In knowing the signs, symptoms, and risk factors, we can identify ways to prevent heart disease.

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. It occurs when plaque develops in the arteries and blood vessels blocking nutrients and oxygen from the heart. This waxy substance accumulates over time and its development is exacerbated by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and cigarette smoking.

Signs & Symptoms of Heart Disease

Symptoms of heart disease are dependent on what type of heart disease you have.

  • Heart disease in your blood vessels
    In this type, symptoms may be different for men and women. Men are more likely to experience chest pain while women experience discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, and extreme fatigue. Generally speaking, other symptoms of atherosclerotic heart disease include pain, numbness, weakness, and coldness in your legs and arms or pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen, or back.
  • Heart disease caused by abnormal heartbeats
    Symptoms of heart disease caused by abnormal heartbeats include fluttering in your chest, racing or slow heartbeat, chest pain or discomfort, and shortness of breath. You may also experience lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting.
  • Heart disease caused by heart defects
    Often, symptoms of heart disease caused by serious heart defects are evident soon after birth. These symptoms include pale gray or blue skin, swelling in the legs, abdomen, or areas around the eyes, and shortness of breath. Nonlife threatening symptoms of less serious heart defects are diagnosed later in life. These include shortness of breath or easy tiring after exercise or activity and swelling in the hands, ankles, and feet.
  • Heart disease symptoms caused by a weak heart muscle
    Often symptoms don’t show in the early stages of cardiomyopathy. As the condition progresses, one may experience fatigue, swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet, breathlessness, irregular heartbeats, dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting.
  • Heart disease caused by heart infections
    The symptoms of heart disease caused by heart infections include fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, changes in your heart rhythm, and dry cough. You may also experience skin rashes or swelling in your legs or abdomen.
  • Heart disease caused by valvular heart disease
    Depending on which valve is working improperly, your symptoms may change, however, they generally include fatigue, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, swollen feet or ankles, chest pain, and fainting.

Risk Factors of Heart Disease

There are several controllable and uncontrollable factors that contribute to heart disease.
About half of all Americans experience at least one of the three key controllable risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Other risk factors for heart disease include having diabetes, being overweight or obese, physical inactivity or maintaining a sedentary lifestyle, and excessive alcohol use. Additionally, uncontrolled stress, depression and anger, high C-reactive protein, and poor diet contribute to one’s risk of heart disease as well. Uncontrollable factors for heart disease include:

  • Being post-menopausal
  • Race (African Americans, American Indians, and Mexican Americans are more at risk than Caucasians)
  • Family history
  • Aging
  • Sex

Heart Disease Treatment & Prevention

Treatment for heart disease typically includes making significant lifestyle changes. Generally, these changes include eating low-fat and low-sodium foods, getting at least 30 minutes of activity a day, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption. If these lifestyle changes aren’t enough, your doctor may prescribe medication to control your heart disease. At some stages, you may need surgery.

The best way to prevent heart disease is to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. Exercise regularly and follow a healthy diet in order to maintain a healthy weight. Find healthy coping mechanisms to reduce stressors. Stop smoking, drink in moderation, and get annual physical exams from your primary care doctor. Most importantly, know the warning signs of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Understanding these symptoms can save your life.

During American Heart Month and always, we make heart disease education our priority. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to avoid and prevent increasing your risk.