Chances are, you’re aware of the obvious signs of a heart attack: chest pain, extreme weakness or fatigue, nausea, clamminess and pain in other parts of the body like the jaw or back (particularly in women). Experiencing these symptoms could mean that you’re having a heart attack, and you should seek medical treatment right away.
Unfortunately, these are all signs of an imminent heart attack. If only your body could give you some warning signs in advance that a heart attack or other heart issues was headed your way! Being given alert that problems could be on the horizon could at least buy you some time to try to avert the issue.
The good news is, there are. Research has uncovered some symptoms that, on the surface, seem unrelated to the heart—and often are blown off as insignificant or “not that big of a deal” by many patients. But, upon closer examination, they can be predictors of heart problems and should be taken seriously. Let’s take a look at five of these little-known warning signs of heart problems.
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person’s breathing is interrupted while sleeping. This interruption is most often caused by an airway blockage—usually when tissue in the back of the throat collapses. People with this condition can stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night—sometimes up to hundreds of times—which causes oxygen deprivation to the brain and body.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to a variety of heart conditions, like high blood pressure and heart attack, due to the fact that the reduced oxygen intake leads to less oxygen feeding the heart. Sleep apnea also increases inflammation in the body—another risk factor for heart conditions.
According to a recent study, a certain group of men with sleep apnea seem to be at higher risk for heart problems than women. Researchers followed 1,927 men and 2,495 women who were free of heart disease and heart failure at baseline. After almost nine years, they found that sleep apnea was a significant predictor of heart disease (including heart attack and death) in men ages 40 to 70, but not in women or older men.
We often associate bleeding gums with not flossing enough or, more seriously, gingivitis—inflammation of the gums due to long-term buildup of plaque (a substance made of bacteria and food debris that is completely unrelated to the arterial plaque associated with heart disease). But if you have a consistent problem with bleeding gums, it’s time to talk to your dentist and your doctor about your heart health.
There are a couple reasons why the health of your gums is connected to the health of your heart. First, the poor circulation often seen in patients with heart disease could contribute to bleeding gums and gingivitis.
Second, research supports the idea that oral bacteria can spread into the bloodstream and contribute to arterial plaque.
In one study of 657 people, researchers analyzed 4,561 oral plaque samples (an average of seven samples per person) and assessed them for 11 different types of bacteria. They also conducted cardiovascular assessments and testing on the participants.
They found that, overall, higher levels of periodontal bacteria were related to greater carotid artery intima-media thickness (thickness of the innermost layers of the arterial walls). In addition, white blood cell values were higher in those who had more bacteria in their systems. They concluded that there is a “direct relationship between periodontal microbiology and subclinical atherosclerosis.”
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to keep your gums healthy and reduce your risk of gingivitis is to floss every day. Flossing removes plaque from teeth and prevents it from accumulating. Visiting your dentist for regular teeth cleanings is also an excellent idea.
Sometimes, our bodies retain water, which causes swelling—a condition known as edema. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including allergic reactions, low levels of certain proteins in the body, injuries or infections, a blockage in the lymph system, pregnancy and the use of certain medications.
On a more serious level, edema can also be an indicator of heart disease. When the heart weakens as a result of disease, it pumps blood less efficiently. This causes fluid to build up, especially in the legs and feet—the areas furthest from your heart, which take the most work to pump blood to.
Shortness of Breath
While shortness of breath, along with other symptoms, could indicate that a heart attack is currently happening, it could also be a sign of future heart troubles. This is because a weak heart pumps less oxygen through the body, which could result in shortness of breath.
The feeling of constantly feeling out of breath should not be ignored because of its sheer significance in predicting heart disease risk. In one study of almost 18,000 participants, researchers found that the rate of death from cardiac causes was significantly higher in people who reported shortness of breath than in those patients who did not. And among the participants who had no history of heart problems, those with shortness of breath had four times the risk of sudden death from cardiac causes, as compared to patients with no shortness of breath.
Difficulty maintaining an erection can affect more than your sex life. It can be a sign of atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which reduces blood flow to organs.
In the earlier stages of atherosclerosis, smaller arteries (like those in the penis) often get blocked up before larger arteries (like those supplying blood to the heart). The plaque deposits reduce blood flow to the penis, making it difficult to get an erection.
One study published in January 2013 highlights just how much of a heart disease predictor erectile dysfunction can be. Researchers followed 95,038 men, 10,159 of whom were treated for or died of cardiovascular disease. They found that the risks of cardiovascular disease and death increased steadily with the severity of erectile dysfunction. They noted that their findings “give support for [cardiovascular disease] risk assessment in men with erectile dysfunction.”
What To Do
If you have any of these symptoms or conditions—especially two or more of them—visit your doctor as soon as possible. Consider these symptoms your body’s way of telling you something larger and more serious could be wrong…but with swift and proper medical treatment, serious consequences can be prevented.
And even if no underlying heart issues are found, there are treatments for these bothersome health issues that will allow you to live a more active and/or fulfilling life.