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Early warning signs of heart disease that you shouldn’t ignore

Heart disease leads to heart attack or stroke. How to pick up the signs of trouble.

6 September 2019
2 minute read

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More South Africans die of heart disease than of all the cancers combined. Heart disease usually involves narrowed or blocked blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke, and is the leading cause of death after HIV/Aids. Read on for the early warning signs of heart disease that you shouldn’t ignore.

What is heart disease?Heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, includes blood vessel diseases such as coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and heart defects you're born with (congenital heart defects).

Don’t ignore these early warning signs of heart disease:Chest pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort
This may be a sign of angina, a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. The main cause of angina is atherosclerosis – the arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques. These cause them to harden and narrow, restricting the blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart. Angina is often described as a squeezing, heaviness or pressure-like sensation. Symptoms can also include shortness of breath, nausea and sweating.

Arm, shoulder, back or jaw pain
Arm, shoulder or back pain that occurs with any sort of exertion and is relieved by rest could signal reduced blood flow to your heart muscle, which in turn is linked to coronary artery disease. Along with left arm pain, you might get deferred pain in the shoulders, neck, back, or jaw.

Swollen legs, feet, and ankles
Heart disease can lead to an excess fluid build-up, because when your heart is not pumping well, fluid from inside your blood vessels tends to leak out into surrounding tissues. The fluid concentrates in the legs, feet, ankles and/or lower legs.

Irregular heartbeat
A heart arrhythmia is an abnormal heartbeat, which can be caused by coronary artery disease, which impairs the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeat and your heart beats too quickly, too slowly or irregularly. Your heartbeats feel rapid or fluttering.

Breathlessness, fatigue and swollen legs
These symptoms may be a sign of dilated cardiomyopathy, which means the heart’s ability to pump blood is decreased because the heart’s left ventricle is enlarged and weak. Dizziness and weight gain are other common symptoms of this condition.

Hypertension (high blood pressure), is the leading risk factor for death from heart disease, responsible for 13% of deaths globally, and is the leading risk factor for stroke in SA.

It can lead to hypertensive heart disease, which can cause heart failure. Symptoms of hypertension are headache, fatigue, vision problems, irregular heartbeat, chest pain and difficulty breathing.

High cholesterol
Too much cholesterol in your blood builds up in the walls of your arteries, causing a process called atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease. Often, there are no symptoms that specifically relate to high cholesterol, so have your cholesterol levels checked every four to six years.

Call an ambulance if:You suddenly feel unsteady and you also have chest discomfort and shortness of breath. It could mean your blood pressure has dropped because your heart isn't able to pump the way it should.

Don’t ignore the signsIf you have any of the symptoms above, consult your doctor. Many of the contributing factors to heart disease can be managed by medicines and lifestyle changes. The sooner you get medical advice and treatment, the better your chances of avoiding a potentially devastating heart attack.

Change your lifestyle, reduce your risk

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