Heart disease symptoms in women or in men are indications that you feel or experience, while a sign of heart disease is something your doctor can see or find. Obvious heart disease symptoms include shortness of breath or chest pain. But your doctor may also look for some surprising heart disease signs during an examination.
Knowing the signs of heart disease is important because you may have them before you have any of the common heart disease symptoms. Letting your doctor know about these warning signs could help you get an early jump on heart disease.
“Signs like ankle swelling or weight gain do not necessarily mean you have heart disease, but taken together with other symptoms of heart disease, laboratory studies, and family history, they are an important part of making a diagnosis of heart disease or heart failure,” says Carl E. Orringer, MD, director of preventive cardiovascular medicine at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
Swelling of the Feet and Lower Legs
Retention of fluid in the feet and legs is known as peripheral edema. Edema may appear as “sock marks” at the end of the day. Mild peripheral edema is common. Your doctor may check for this sign by pressing a finger against your ankle or shin bone to see if a depression is left behind. This is called “pitting edema.”
Edema may be a sign of heart failure because, when your heart is not pumping well, fluid from inside your blood vessels tends to leak out into surrounding tissues. The legs and ankles are common areas for edema because of the effects of gravity.
“Peripheral edema may be caused by a host of issues,” says Dr. Orringer. “The bottom line is that most people with peripheral edema do not have heart disease, but it could be an important sign if there are other signs and symptoms of heart failure.”
Male Pattern Baldness
“If you watched any of the royal wedding, you might have noticed that Prince William is balding on the top of his head. This type of balding of the crown of the head in young men may be a sign of an increased risk for heart disease,” says Orringer.
Several large studies have confirmed the link between baldness and heart disease. Compared to men with a full head of hair, men with crown loss have an increased risk of heart disease of about 23 percent. Men with complete loss of hair on the top of their head have an increased risk of 36 percent.
The combination of hair loss, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol pushes the risk even higher. This link may be due to too much of the male hormone testosterone, which interferes with hair growth on the head and causes hardening of the arteries. That doesn’t mean you are doomed to heart failure if you are bald, but it does suggest you should be screened more carefully for other signs and symptoms of heart disease.
Yellow Bumps on the Skin
Xanthomas are deposits of fat that build up under the skin. They may appear as small yellow bumps or as flat, wide plaques on your elbows, knees, hands, feet, or buttocks. A type of xanthoma called “xanthelasma palpebra” appears on the eyelids. These yellow, fat deposits can potentially be signs of heart disease because they may indicate high levels of fats in the blood.
“Xanthomas may be a sign of a rare, inherited type of blood disorder in which high levels of triglycerides accumulate in the blood. Xanthomas may also be a sign of increased cholesterol and they may disappear once cholesterol levels are under control,” says Orringer.
Swollen, sore, or bleeding gums are usually a sign of poor oral hygiene, but may also be an important sign of heart disease. “The association between gum disease and heart disease is the real deal,” says Orringer. “There is plenty of research available now that backs up this connection.”
Gum disease and heart disease may be linked because they are both signs of poor circulation, or there could be common bacteria that are involved in both gum disease and plaque build-up inside coronary arteries. The link may also have something to do with the body’s response to prolonged inflammation. In any case, taking better care of your teeth and gums is a good way to cut down your risk for heart disease.
Signs of Heart Failure
Heart failure means the heart is not functioning as well as it should. It doesn’t mean the heart has failed. Another term for heart failure is congestive heart failure, or CHF. Heart failure gradually gets worse over time. Some early warning signs may include:
- Weight gain. If your heart starts to fail and fluid starts to build up in your tissue, causing edema, you might see a sudden weight gain.
- Frequent urination. Heart failure may cause decreased blood flow to the kidneys, which causes you to retain more fluid. One of the signs of this fluid may be frequent urination.
- Cataracts. Although the exact connection is not known, studies show that people who have cataracts are at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. “This link is probably more of an association than a sign of heart disease,” says Orringer.
- Nighttime cough. “One of the signs of heart failure may be the build-up of fluid in the chest and heart when lying flat at night. This pressure can cause a nighttime cough,” explains Orringer.
Remember that all these heart disease signs may have many different causes. They do not mean you have or will get heart disease. But combined with other heart disease signs and symptoms, your blood tests, and your family history, they give your doctor the best chance to find heart disease early and keep you in good health.