Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. In fact, one person dies every 34 seconds in the country from heart disease, which was responsible for one in every five deaths in 2020.
But despite how common —and deadly — heart disease is, many people don’t know all that much about it. “Heart disease is any problem that takes place in the heart,” Dr. Columbus Batiste, a cardiologist and co-founder of Healthy Heart Nation tells Yahoo Life. “That could mean the arteries, it could mean the electrical system, it could mean the pump. So just like your car, you have different aspects to the heart that can run into problems.”
Heart disease affects men and women, but it disproportionately impacts communities of color, Batiste says. It also tends to happen alongside other illnesses. “Heart disease … often runs with high blood pressure, it runs with diabetes, it runs with high cholesterol, it runs with inactivity, it runs with stress, which impacts so many Americans,” he says.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says one of the largest groups affected by heart disease is 65 and older.
But Batiste says that heart disease “sneaks up on you,” making it important to have some awareness of this serious illness. So, what are the signs of heart disease to look out for? Here’s what you need to know.
1. Make sure you know the symptoms of heart disease
Heart disease is an umbrella term that refers to several heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, which affects the blood flow to the heart, per the CDC. With that, symptoms can vary.
Heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until someone has a heart event like a heart attack. Those symptoms typically include, per the CDC:
- Fluttering feelings in the chest
- shortness of breath
- swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck
- chest pain or discomfort
- upper back or neck pain
- nausea or vomiting
- extreme fatigue
- upper body discomfort
- shortness of breath
With a heart attack, one of the first symptoms is “chest discomfort that persists,” Batiste says. That can be followed by shortness of breath and fatigue “where you just have zero energy,” he says, adding that symptoms of discomfort that travel down the arm or to the neck and jaw, along with becoming sweaty, are concerning. “When they persist, you need to go in and seek evaluation as soon as possible,” Batiste says.
2. Know if you’re at risk for heart disease
The biggest controllable risk factor for heart disease is diet, Batiste says. “Our food really impacts our development of chronic disease,” he says. He lists off the following as foods that can raise your risk of heart disease:
- highly processed foods
- sugary foods
- foods that are high in fat
- animal products
The development of heart disease by way of plaques that form in the arteries of the heart can start before the age of 10, Batiste says. “We see this upward increase throughout the decades of life is,” he adds.
Other risk factors for heart disease, per the CDC, include:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- overweight or obesity
- physical inactivity
- excessive alcohol use
3. Heart disease is treatable with medication
Research has shown that “aggressive medications” can slowly and subtly reverse heart disease, Batiste says, along with following a plant-based diet. Treatments like a stent and even open heart surgery can also help, depending on what form of heart disease a person has and how severe it is, he says.
Medicare should help cover screening tests, like primary care doctor’s visits and treatments for heart disease, Batiste says.