Someone has a heart attack in the U.S. every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means by the time you’re done reading this article, somewhere across the country at least six Americans have suffered a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries leading to the heart suddenly becomes blocked, cutting off blood flow and depriving the heart of oxygen. This weakens the heart’s ability to pump properly and can lead to heart failure, a chronic condition that develops gradually and gets worse without treatment.
Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Mayo Clinic and founder of the Women’s Heart Clinic, tells Yahoo Life, “Most people when they present with a heart attack have been having symptoms for a month or more.” So what should you watch out for? Here are three warning signs of heart failure, according to experts:
Symptom #1: Shortness of breath
Everyone gets winded once in a while, but people who might be developing heart failure experience shortness of breath that’s a bit different. Dr. Nicole Harkin, a preventive cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology in San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life that when the heart cannot pump blood properly, the blood starts to back up, causing congestion and fluid buildup in the lungs. She says these patients may feel breathless while performing normal daily activities that they “used to be able to do easily,” such as walking or climbing stairs.
Dr. Michelle O’Donoghue, an associate physician of the cardiovascular division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, adds that “people with heart failure often describe that they need to sleep with more pillows to keep their head more elevated, to breathe more comfortably, or that they wake up at night trying to catch their breath.”
Symptom #2: Feeling fatigued
Heart failure also impacts the heart’s ability to pump enough oxygen to the muscles within your body. Without the right amount of oxygen, those muscles can get worn out quickly. “People with heart failure often notice that they're experiencing fatigue or extreme exhaustion,” explains Harkin. “This is because the heart isn't able to meet the metabolic demands of the body.”
So how can you tell if your fatigue is a symptom of heart failure or something else? Hayes suggests using a comparison. “When people say, ‘You know, I just don’t feel well, I’m tired.’ Well, that could be anything,” she says. So Hayes asks her patients to get more specific. “They say, ‘Well, last year I could mow the lawn, and this year I have to stop three times because I get too tired and breathless,’” says Hayes. She points out that this type of change or decline in the ability to do tasks you did before should be a red flag and something to talk to your doctor about.
Symptom #3: Abnormal swelling
As blood flow from the heart slows, over time, it can back up in your veins. “The pressure from this backup causes fluid to accumulate in the soft tissues of the legs, as well as sometimes in the abdomen,” explains Harkin. This buildup of excess fluid in body tissues is called edema and is another indication of heart failure.
“How you can check for swelling in your legs is by touching your finger on your shin,” Harkin instructs. “If you notice that you can really see the [deep] imprint of your finger, that's called pitting edema and may be a sign of heart failure. Talk to your doctor if you notice this.”
While there are tests, including an echocardiogram or a coronary calcium scan, to measure how your heart is functioning, there is no one test that will tell you if you have heart disease. “There isn’t a mammogram for the heart,” Hayes notes. “There isn’t a colonoscopy for the heart.” Hayes explains that while there have been several proposals, “none of the tests have reached that bar where they are both predictable and actionable, affordable and scalable.” So until a test like that is developed, your best defense against heart disease and heart failure is knowing and recognizing the symptoms. It could keep you from becoming a statistic.
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.
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