American Heart Month

Improve your heart IQ during American Heart Month

When you hear the words “American Heart Month” the first thing that likely comes to mind is “heart attack.” But that’s only one part of the story. More than raising awareness of signs of heart attack, this month is all about heart disease, which covers an array of conditions that, combined, are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.

Fortunately, there’s much that you can do to reduce your risk of developing most types of heart disease. The first step is to know the various types and the warning signs:

Types and signs of heart disease

Coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis) — A buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain in the left side, tightness, pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Leg or arm pain, numbness, weakness or coldness
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back

According to our partners at the Mayo Clinic, women are more likely to have more pronounced symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Discomfort of the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Indigestion

Enlarged heart — Often caused by high blood pressure or atherosclerosis, an enlarged heart may not pump blood effectively. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath when active or lying flat
  • Leg swelling
  • Weight gain, especially in the midsection
  • Fatigue
  • Palpitations or skipped heartbeats

Irregular heart rhythm — This can take many forms, including beating too fast or slow, skipping a beat or fluttering (atrial fibrillation). Other symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting or near fainting

Heart valve disease — One or more of the heart’s valves fails to fully open or close. Symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Swelling in the feet/ankles
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting

Sudden cardiac arrest — The electrical system powering the heart suddenly malfunctions, leading to a dangerously irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, there are no symptoms preceding an actual event.

Congenital heart disease — A defect in the heart from birth, such as a very small hole, improperly connected blood vessels or a defect in a valve. Symptoms include:

  • Bluish or pale gray skin color
  • Swelling around the eyes or in the legs or abdomen
  • In infants, shortness of breath when feeding

Heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy) — An abnormally enlarged, thickened and/or stiffened heart that impairs its ability to pump blood. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath when active or at rest
  • Swollen legs, ankles or feet
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid, pounding or fluttering heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness and fainting

Heart infection — The inner lining of the heart and pericardium (the fluid-filled sack that houses the heart) can be attacked by bacteria, fungi or other germs. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Rashes or unusual spots on the skin
  • Changing heart rhythm
  • A dry or persistent cough

Risk Factors

While some things are out of our control — such as family history, gender and advancing age — many forms of heart disease are influenced by our behaviors. Heart disease and heart attack causes can include:

  • Smoking
  • Diets high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes — Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than adults without. Women with diabetes have a 40% greater risk of developing heart disease than men with diabetes do.
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
  • Stress
  • Poor hygiene

Steps to help prevent heart disease

Some forms of heart disease — such as congenital defects or sudden cardiac arrest — can’t be prevented. But for the rest, you can improve your odds by making some commonsense lifestyle changes:

  • Quit smoking (better yet, never start)
  • Treat and control high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes
  • Get 30 minutes or more of exercise each day
  • Cut down on salt and a diet that’s low in saturated fat
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce and get stress under control
  • Practice good hygiene — wash your hands often and take care of your teeth

St. Clair Hospital offers comprehensive, personal and expert care for heart disease, earning recognition as a Blue Distinction Center for Cardiac Care. We’re committed to providing our patients with the most modern tools and strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat and recover from heart problems. To learn more, please visit: