Globally recognised as a leading cause of death, heart disease symptoms can be subtle, making early detection and management essential. Here we will explore the various symptoms associated with heart disease and how you can take action to manage your health for the long haul. Managing your heart health is not just about taking medication, but also about embracing a lifestyle that can prevent the onset of heart disease, reduce the risk of developing other chronic conditions, and improve overall quality of life.
In this article we will explore:
What is Heart Disease?
In Australia, heart disease is a significant health concern, affecting about 1.2 million Australians, and is a leading cause of death. While men have a higher risk of developing heart disease, the prevalence affects both sexes and increases with age (). Heart disease refers to a range of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function. It includes ():
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): The most common type of heart disease, affecting almost 3% of the Australian Adult population, CAD occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed due to plaque buildup, leading to reduced blood flow . CAD develops slowly, and many people are unaware that they have a heart disease until they experience angina (reduced blood flow to the heart) or a heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction).
- Arrhythmias: These are conditions where the heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Examples include atrial fibrillation, tachycardia, and bradycardia.
- Congenital Heart Defects: These are heart irregularities present at birth, affecting the heart’s structure or blood vessels.
- Heart Failure: This occurs when the heart cannot pump blood effectively to meet the body’s needs.
- Valvular Heart Disease: Involving damage to or a defect in one of the four heart valves, this affects the flow of blood through the heart.
Understanding the diverse symptoms associated with different heart diseases is crucial for effective disease management and timely intervention.
Common Heart Disease Symptoms
Heart disease symptoms vary widely, but common signs include ():
- Chest pain or discomfort – often described as a sensation of pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the chest’s centre.
- Shortness of breath – indicating potential heart failure or coronary artery disease.
- Palpitations – a sign of arrhythmias.
- Unexplained fatigue – an early symptom of heart failure
Recognising these heart disease symptoms are vital, as they often serve as the first indicators of potential heart issues, requiring further medical evaluation.
Subtle Signs of Heart Disease
Besides well-known heart disease symptoms, there are also less obvious signs that are often overlooked:
- Mild chest discomfort or occasional shortness of breath.
- Indigestion, nausea, or light-headedness, particularly in women.
- Swelling in the legs, ankles, or feet, indicative of heart failure
While these signs of heart disease may indicate underlying heart problems, please note that this is a generic list of symptoms that may relate to other health conditions. Do not use this information to diagnose heart disease – please see a health professional for appropriate testing and medical advice.
How is heart disease diagnosed?
Diagnosing heart disease involves evaluating medical history, physical examinations, and various diagnostic tests under the guidance of a health practitioner. Common tools include ():
- Electrocardiograms (ECG), recording the heart’s electrical activity.
- Echocardiograms, providing images of the heart’s structure and function.
- Stress tests, assessing the heart’s response to physical exertion.
- Cardiac catheterisation, examining the coronary arteries.
- Blood tests to measure cholesterol levels, triglycerides and other biomarkers indicative of heart disease
Your GP may also check your blood pressure, pulse, weight and reported heart disease symptoms as further assessments to guide treatment plans.
How can I stay healthy if I have a heart condition?
Preventing and managing heart disease involves a combination of lifestyle and medical interventions ():
- Follow a Mediterranean-style diet: Adopting the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce heart disease risk by up to 24% and lower the risk of death by 23% (). This diet includes:
- Eating fish at least twice weekly for omega-3 fatty acids.
- Consuming legumes 3-4x per week
- Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Including whole grains such as rice, quinoa, oats and barley
- Eating eggs and dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and milk
- Using olive oil as a main cooking oil
- Limiting red meat consumption, added sugars, and processed carbohydrates
- Regular physical activity, recommended by WHO as ():
- At least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. walking, bike riding, water aerobics, dancing)
- Or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity (e.g. running, swimming, tennis)
- Or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity across the week
- Strength training 2x per week to support muscle and bone health (e.g. weights, pilates, resistance training, yoga)
- Avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol.
- Managing stress (e.g. through meditation, yoga, journaling etc.)
- Aim for 7-9 hours of good quality sleep. Overnight, your body works to repair and restore blood vessels, so inadequate sleep can increase your risk of heart disease and other health conditions.
- Monitoring and managing weight and waist circumference; a waist circumference below 94 cm for men and 80 cm for women reduces heart disease risk ().
- Regular blood pressure and cholesterol level checks, alongside prescribed medications, are vital for diagnosed individuals.
Recognising heart disease symptoms and securing a timely diagnosis are critical for effective prevention and management. Awareness, informed lifestyle choices, and adherence to medical advice can significantly reduce heart disease risk and impact. Consult a general practitioner if you have identified symptoms of heart disease for specific advice and treatment. If you are ready to start improving your lifestyle, diet and health, book a call to join the Heart Smart Australia Program.