If you feel healthy, you may think you've got plenty of time before you have to start worrying about medical issues like heart disease.
"The beginnings of heart disease could be present in your body even if you feel fine," explained Family Medicine physician Marc Ucchino, D.O.
"To know whether you're at risk for heart disease, there are important risk factors to consider, including your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and your waist circumference. High cholesterol and high blood pressure usually don't cause physical symptoms, so it's important to have these numbers checked regularly by your doctor."
High Blood Pressure
"High blood pressure can make a person's arteries rigid instead of flexible, which can also restrict blood flow to essential areas of the body, such as the heart and brain," Dr. Ucchino advised. "When your blood pressure numbers go up, you're at an increased risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke."
Ideally, a person's blood pressure level should be at 120/80 mm/Hg or below. Pre-hypertension is considered anything above that level up to 139/89 mm/Hg, and hypertension is considered to be 140/90 mm/Hg and up. If you fall into these categories, it's time to check with your physician and take action to help prevent heart disease.
Cholesterol is often reported as a single number, referred to as total cholesterol. However, there are both bad and good forms of cholesterol. The bad kind - LDL cholesterol - flows through the blood and sticks to the inside of the blood vessels, forming plaque that makes it tough for blood to flow freely and get to the heart and brain. The good cholesterol - HDL - can help to minimize this damage.
High cholesterol puts a person at risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, such as stroke. If a person's total cholesterol is too high - above 200 mg/dL - he or she should also know the LDL cholesterol level. "A person's LDL cholesterol should ideally be below 100 mg/dL," he said. "In addition, it's important to try to have your HDL cholesterol at 60 mg/dL or higher, which is the most protective level for your heart."
Many people know that obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. "If you are a person who carries most of your weight in your belly, similar to an apple shape, you're at an even greater risk for heart disease," Dr. Ucchino remarked. "Women should have a waist circumference of no more than 35 inches, while men need to stay below 40 inches."
Other Common Risk Factors for Heart Disease
- Being a smoker
- Having diabetes
- Having a family member, who developed heart disease before the age of 60
Signs of Heart Disease
People may know some of the classic signs of heart disease or a heart attack, such as chest pain, dizziness, and fatigue; but heart disease symptoms can be quite different in men and women.
"Among the more common and noticeable heart disease symptoms is angina," said Dr. Ucchino. "This type of chest pain may feel like a tightness, pressure, or heaviness in the chest, or even a burning sensation that can seem like indigestion. However, in the case of angina, the chest pain is not limited to the heart area. Both men and women may experience heart pain under the breastbone, in the neck or jaw, and in the left shoulder and arm. In women, angina may also be felt in the back more often than in men.
"During a heart attack, pain may also strike women differently, causing pain in the upper abdominal area, in addition to the back. Women shouldn't be quick to dismiss any unusual pain in the body, particularly if it's accompanied by other heart attack symptoms, such as dizziness, fatigue, or chest pain."
In addition, before a heart attack occurs, some women may experience a number of symptoms, such as pain in the chest, arms, neck, jaw, back or upper abdomen, which may not seem related to the heart. According to one study, nearly 80 percent of women felt at least one of the following symptoms listed below for a month or more before they had a heart attack, and only 30 percent noticed any chest pain.
Other symptoms of heart attack in women include:
- Feeling particularly fatigued
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling anxious or breaking out in a sweat
"Keep in mind that heart disease and heart attacks in women often don't strike until a woman is around age 55 or older, which is often 10 years later than they are experienced in men," Dr. Ucchino continued.
Other common heart disease symptoms in men can include:
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- Discomfort fullness, pressure, or burning in the chest
- Feeling short of breath
- Feeling tired
- Swelling in the legs
"If you experience chest pain or any of the other heart disease warning signs for longer than a few minutes, these may be heart attack symptoms and you should seek medical attention immediately," Dr. Ucchino concluded.
Marc Ucchino, D.O., is board certified in Family Medicine and is affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's medical staff and PRIMA Healthcare, 107 Royal Birkdale Drive in Columbiana, 330-482-9350.