Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., representing a wide range of potentially lethal heart conditions. The most common type of heart disease—and the number one cause of heart attack—is coronary artery disease (CAD), which is typically caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Every year, over three million people are diagnosed with this life-threatening condition. However, despite its well-established threat to public health, many people are still unaware of its symptoms, and ignore the subtle signs of a problem until it’s too late. Read on to learn the number one heart disease symptom that people ignore, and when it’s time to call the doctor.
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As the arteries become increasingly blocked by cholesterol buildup, they become inflamed and fail to send enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. When this happens, you may begin to experience symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. If blood flow is obstructed completely, it may cause a heart attack. “For many people, the first clue that they have CAD is a heart attack,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You may experience another symptom before reaching the point where a heart attack is imminent: heartburn. Experts say it’s important to call your doctor for a heart health evaluation if you have heartburn that strikes you as suspicious.
“Heartburn is very common, but occasionally it can be a sign that the heart isn’t getting enough blood flow,” says Yu-Ming Ni, MD, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “The most common symptom of this is chest pressure or tightness, but heartburn is also quite common, especially in those with diabetes and in women. So if the antacids don’t seem to help, or if your heartburn seems to occur at times separate from eating, ask your doctor to check for coronary artery disease,” he tells Best Life.
Malaise is another symptom experts say tends to go unchecked. “Malaise is the general sense of feeling unwell or uncomfortable. This symptom is very frequently ignored as a sign of heart disease because it can be tremendously challenging to identify the cause when it occurs,” says Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a board certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
He adds that malaise can even be a key feature in “silent” heart attack, which is “often characterized by atypical symptoms such as malaise, indigestion, or nausea. Some individuals who experience these symptoms, thinking they had a ‘stomach bug,’ will later come to find out that they had actually suffered a heart attack,” Tadwalkar tells Best Life.
It’s especially important to keep vigilant watch over your symptoms if you could be at high risk of heart disease. People with “high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity,” are most likely to develop heart disease, warns the CDC.
“The best way for an individual to detect heart disease early is to stay on top of their medical care by following through with the plans their physicians create,” says Tadlwalkar. “When experiencing symptoms like this without a clear cause, it is important for individuals to seek urgent medical attention so that a cardiac issue can be more definitively ruled in or out.”