Updated: Feb 21
Heart problems are the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2011 alone, heart disease killed more than 787,000 people. A couple years prior, CardioSmart reported than nearly one in every four Americans was killed by heart disease.
“Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives than all forms of cancer combined,” The Heart Foundation reported. The site also noted that someone dies of a heart-related disease every minute in the U.S. Unhealthy hearts are a crux of the medical field, too, with more than $320 billion spent every year treating heart diseases.
Some life-threatening issues and diseases caused by an unhealthy heart include:
Heart attacks: Blood flow (thus, oxygen) to the heart is partially completely cut off to the heart. Heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries.
Heart failure: This happens when the heart isn’t able to pump blood in and out the way it normally does.
Coronary heart disease: CHD occurs when plaque builds up in the two coronary arteries in your heart. It kills the most people of any heart problem.
Strokes: These happen when blood flow from your heart to your brain is impaired or ceases.
And as we and our bodies age, these issues and diseases become more prevalent because of unavoidable factors that are symptoms of growing older. As they relate directly to the heart, these include:
a reduced heart rate,
thickening of the heart’s walls,
and an overall weakening in its strength as it relates to pumping blood (the heart is a muscular organ, after all).
So needless to say, it’s important to understand your heart and the state of its health, especially as you or a loved one ages.
There are many warning signs of an unhealthy heart that are passed off as simple inconveniences or non-serious medical issues. While having one of these symptoms may not be a strong indicator of an unhealthy heart, having multiple symptoms—such as a persistent cough and pain in the chest—may indicate that you have heart disease or that a heart attack is impending.
If you experience a combination of any of these symptoms, it’s important you or your caregiver calls a health professional to get the help you need.
1. Aching In The Shoulder And Chest
Chest pains, especially on the left side near the heart, have long been a sign for a potential impending heart attack. The pain is caused by the death of heart muscle cells. Tightness and strain on the heart can sometimes be so painful that the pain can make its way to the upper torso, especially the shoulder area. This is called angina, which is associated with pain directly related to the irregular and interrupted flow of blood to the heart. Sharp pain in the shoulder usually doesn’t indicate a problem with the heart, but a slow and gradual building of pain in the shoulder area may be an indication of unhealthy heart issues.
2. Snoring And Sleeping Problems
Snoring and sleep problems like insomnia and sleep apnea, a disorder where there are disruptions in your breathing while you sleep, have been directly linked to heart disease and other cardiovascular issues.
Episodes of sleep apnea, which can cause sleepers to wake up gasping for air, cause inconsistent sleep patterns that can be stressful on the heart. Sleep apnea “prevents restful sleep and is associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke and heart failure,” the American Heart Association said. Recently developed sleep apnea or snoring problems can indicate there is something wrong with the heart.
There is also a disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is directly related to high weight and obesity—two leading factors in heart disease. OSA occurs when “weight on the upper chest and neck contributes to blocking the flow of air,” causing anxious sleeping patterns. Once sleep apnea has been treated and/or corrected, doctors have noticed drops in patients’ blood pressure.
3. Difficulty With Sexual Function
“Erectile dysfunction—the inability to get and keep an erection firm enough for sex—can be an early warning sign of current or future heart problems,” the Mayo Clinic reported. ED can be caused by an improper relationship between the flow of blood from the heart to the penis, indicating possible atherosclerosis—the narrowing of arteries and a cause for heart disease.
“Sexual dysfunction was related to the severity of cardiovascular disease,” one study said. “When they resumed sexual activity, patients with heart disease reported significant difficulty, including a lack of interest in sex, sexual dissatisfaction and a decrease in the frequency of sexual activity,” which highlights the connection between sexual problems and heart disease. This study included women, too. Female sexual drive can diminish due to improper blood flow to the genital area caused by an unhealthy heart.
4. Irregular Heartbeat
An irregular heartbeat is more formally known as “arrhythmias,” which means that your heart isn’t pumping blood at its normal rhythm. While you can be relatively healthy and still have an irregular heartbeat, it is also an indication for heart failure or an impending heart attack.
“High blood pressure and coronary artery disease (blockage in the pipes of the heart) are the main causes of blood vessel disorders” like an irregular heartbeat, the Heart Rhythm Society said.
Arrhythmia is caused by the interruption of the electrical system that controls the heart. There are many different types of arrhythmia, some which indicate your heart is failing.
Atrial fibrillation: The heartbeat is a lot faster than normal, sometimes up to four times faster and pumping 300 times a minute. People with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke compared to people without the condition, one site said.
Atrial flutter: Similar to atrial fibrillation, but the heartbeat is a little more organized. It also causes a fast heartbeat and is a leading cause of strokes.
Premature ventricular contractions: These contractions are also known as skipped heartbeats. They’re an indication of heart disease.
Also, as mentioned earlier, an irregular or lessened resting heart rate can be a symptom of your heart’s age. Again, the heart is a muscular organ and begins to weaken as we grow older, so a reduced heart rate can occur (though this is also something you need to address with your physician).
5. Sore Gums And Jaw, Mouth Problems
You may be wondering, how could sore gums possibly mean there’s a problem with my heart? It’s not accurate to say that if you have a gum disease like gingivitis, then you definitely have a heart problem. But doctors have found gum diseases and heart issues are related.
“Your gums are very vascular, meaning they’re full of blood vessels, and, your mouth is full of bacteria,” Dr. Thomas Boyden, Jr. said. “If you disrupt the gum layer even a little bit, you’re going to get bacteria in your bloodstream, which can go anywhere and trigger inflammation throughout the body.” Having open wounds and infected parts of your mouth allows things bad for your heart to flow directly to it, affecting the heart’s overall health.
Pain running from the heart up to around the jaw area is a common sign of a heart attack, especially in women. Jaw pain alone isn’t a strong symptom for a heart attack but rather an issue with your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). When jaw pain is paired with chest pain or other symptoms on the list, that’s when it becomes a concern.
6. Puffy Legs And Feet
Swelling of the legs and feet can be a sign of heart failure. You may notice your lower extremities becoming more swollen when you take your shoes and/or pants off at the end of the day. “You are more likely to notice swelling in your legs and ankles later in the day because gravity increases the amount and pressure of blood in the veins of the lower limbs,” a site dedicated to heart failure pointed out.
Similar to pain in the chest and torso, the swelling of the legs and feet are caused by the improper flow of blood to the heart. Because blood isn’t flowing out as it should, blood also isn’t flowing back in properly, either. This causes blood to clot up or completely stop your heart from working.
7. Shortness Of Breath And Fatigue
The American Heart Association said shortness of breath is an indicator of heart failure.
The AHA described situations that indicate a shortness of breath and they include:
You have “breathlessness during activity (most commonly), at rest, or while sleeping, which may come on suddenly and wake you up.”
You need to be propped up after having difficulty breathing while laying flat.
You wake up feeling tired or restless after sleeping through the night.
Blood vessels can get backed up due to an unhealthy heart, and it starts spreading to places it shouldn’t be, like the lungs. This causes shortness of breath.
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded—or even fainting—can be a sign that blood flow to the brain is restricted, which is a leading cause for strokes and heart attacks. The dizziness and fainting can also be caused by a drop in blood pressure. “Dizziness, especially when standing up too quickly, is an extremely common symptom for people with heart failure,” one site noted.
9. Persistent Cough
A persistent cough is not always a sign your heart has a problem, because it’s a common symptom of many common illnesses like a cold, the flu, and bronchitis. A never-ending cough can be a sign of fluid building up in your lungs, which is a sign of congestive heart failure.
“When the heart is not able to pump efficiently, blood can back up into the veins that take blood through the lungs,” a government health website said. “As the pressure in these blood vessels increases, fluid is pushed into the air spaces (alveoli) in the lungs.” The cough is caused by the irritation and fluid in the lungs, which is similar to what can give you a shortness of breath.
10. Random Bouts Of Cold Sweats
Do not think that just because you sweat it means that you’re going to have a heart attack. Sweating is a natural, healthy function the body goes through to cool itself down. Sweating, especially cold sweats, may be a sign of a problem with your heart when you’re not doing any sort of physical activity, particularly when there’s chest pain associated with it. The sweat may come from your body trying to cool down the inflammation around the heart.
What Preventive Measures Can I Take?
It’s never too late to take control of your body and try to divert your heart back to healthy ways. Though there are often suggestions to young adults as to how they can live a healthy lifestyle going forward, many of those recommendations also work well for seniors.
Consider medication to help control blood pressure
Increase physical activity, which helps maintain a healthy weight
Decrease alcohol consumption
These measures are presented (and should be taken) no matter how old you are. Medications can start kicking in almost immediately and help your heart at an older age. All of these suggestions can help lower the risk of getting diabetes, too. Our guide to exercising for life can help you get started implementing a healthy, physical lifestyle.
Circulation, a journal dedicated to heart health, also suggests statin therapy, which is essentially taking medication to help lower cholesterol levels. It was often believed that that process didn’t work. However, the journal noted that “statin therapy to reduce cholesterol has been shown to reduce mortality even if started over the age of 80 years, and in these individuals, lipid levels similar to those in younger persons are targeted.”
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