Five Surprising Signs of an Unhealthy Heart
Find out if your heart is headed for trouble
By Victoria Mier

The common warning signs of heart attacks and strokes are well-known, but there are lots of other symptoms that can indicate your heart isn’t as healthy as you think – even if they seem like everyday issues. SJ cardiologists share five hidden dangers you might be overlooking.


1. Life in the bedroom isn’t so enjoyable

You’ve probably seen the erectile dysfunction (ED) commercials featuring mature couples blissfully enjoying some romantic time together. But despite the quick fix promoted in the commercial, an ED diagnosis doesn’t mean men should simply pop a pill and forget about it.

“Erectile dysfunction due to blocked arteries in the genital area can be an indicator that there’s blocked arteries elsewhere, like your heart,” says Vivek Sailam, MD, of Lourdes Cardiology.

Cardiovascular experts point out that as arteries in the body become hardened and narrowed by plaque – known as atherosclerosis – they restrict blood flow to the heart, the brain and, in the case of ED, to the penis. In fact, researchers from Cleveland Clinic have found that atherosclerosis alone accounts for 50 to 60 percent of ED cases in men older than age 60.

Sailam points out that younger men experiencing ED, especially if they have risk factors for heart disease, should see their doctor ASAP.

“Anytime a man comes in and he’s in his 50s, has high blood pressure, diabetes, smokes and has significant erectile dysfunction, that’s a red flag there’s something going on with his heart,” he says. “See your doctor, because you want to be proactive.”

If you do have blocked arteries, your doctor can help correct them with lifestyle changes, medication and surgeries, if needed, says Sailam. “There’s some good news if your ED is in fact caused by a blocked artery: if we fix that, many times, the ED will also go away.”


2. Your partner mentions that you’ve been snoring

Plain old snoring isn’t just a nuisance for your significant other. When a snorer repeatedly stops breathing for a few moments – otherwise known as sleep apnea – it can lead to cardiovascular issues and potentially be life-threatening.

“On a scale of one to 10, from a health hazard point of view, if you stop breathing while you’re sleeping, that’s easily a nine,” says Paul Mather, MD, a cardiologist at Penn Medicine.

Beyond the obvious concern for lack of breathing, there’s a significant correlation between issues like sleep apnea and heart health, says Mather.

“During that time when you’re not breathing, oxygen levels in your body drop, and your organs need a certain level of oxygen to optimally perform. If they don’t get it, they start performing poorly,” he says. “Over time, that lack of oxygen can cause heart failure.”

If you or your partner is plagued with sleep apnea, Mather suggests you alert your physician right away.

“You should have a full sleep and cardiac workup to make sure everything is OK. There’s a lot of ways to treat sleep apnea, from small masks, nose prongs and pillows to help prop you up, to more serious procedures like surgeries and dental prosthetics,” he says. “Breathing is vital – don’t wait to see your doctor.”


3. Your gums are often sore and bleed after brushing

Paying attention to your dental hygiene – especially your gums – can lead to a healthy smile and a healthy heart.

“Gum, or periodontal, disease can be a marker for other inflammatory issues, like inflammation in your arteries,” Mather says. Nearly 50 percent of Americans have gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and studies show that the harmful bacteria found in gums afflicted with periodontal disease often spread to the heart and can play a role in strokes.

“If you do have periodontal disease,” Mather continues, “it’s not just something your dentist needs to know. You should also alert your primary care doctor, especially if you have other risk factors for heart problems, like smoking, obesity, a history of coronary disease or diabetes.”

“Having gum disease doesn’t mean you need to hit the panic button,” he adds. “But I do think it’s important to say to your doctor, ‘My dentist has diagnosed me with inflamed gums. What other preventative things should I do to protect my cardiac health?’”


4. You notice your pants suddenly feel tighter than normal

If those jeans that fit just right last week are now too snug to button, don’t merely chalk it up to holiday binging.

“I see it all the time: patients start gaining weight rapidly – sometimes as much as two to four pounds a day – and their legs and bellies get swollen,” says Sailam. “But people don’t do anything about it.”

Instead of triggering a diet, those symptoms should sound a warning siren, says Sailam. “If you’re experiencing that type of swelling or weight gain, demand an evaluation to figure out why this is happening. It’s not because you had too many pieces of pizza last night.”

Rapid weight gain and swelling in the abdomen aren’t the only red flags – swelling in the feet, ankles or legs are also telltale signs of a serious problem.

“Whenever someone gets swelling in those areas and is gaining weight, it might be related to a weak heart muscle. When the heart muscle is weakened, it’s not able to circulate fluid properly in your body,” says Sailam. “The fluid can remain stagnant in your legs and stomach, which results in swelling.”

And although these signs and symptoms may be due to heart failure, Sailam says there are many other possible causes, including other life-threatening heart conditions. “Get immediate help – you don’t wait with something like this,” says Sailam. “The more you wait, the more we have to do to fix you back up.”


5. You’re feeling queasy and having trouble breathing

If you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, your first instinct might be to curl up under the covers. But when those symptoms are accompanied by chest pain and back or jaw pain, you should be reaching for the phone, not your pillow.

“There’s no time to waste for something like that,” Sailam says. “I can’t tell you how many people come in on a Saturday night with a heart attack and say they’ve been having symptoms for four weeks and thought it would go away. It’s important to be very aware of what your body’s telling you.”

Though chest pain or discomfort is the most common heart attack symptom in both men and women, the American Heart Association says it’s important to note that women are more likely to experience nausea and vomiting when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked.

Unfortunately, says Sailam, many women brush these symptoms off as the flu, stress or simply feeling under the weather.

“Women often don’t come into the emergency room with the classic chest discomfort,” says Sailam. “I think women have to be very vigilant, since their symptoms of a heart attack are more difficult to discern. Being able to recognize the signs of a heart attack and act quickly is key – get to an ER and be evaluated right away.”

February 2017
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