Even though your whole body depends on your heart, you might not know if it's in trouble. The early signs of an unhealthy heart are often vague (fatigue), chalked up to something else (heartburn) or seemingly not linked to your heart at all (gum problems).
"The heart, like all organs, needs oxygen in the blood to be supplied to it via a channel of arteries. When there's a blocked artery or the demand for the heart to increase output when it can't, the result is poor blood flow and oxygen to the rest of the body," Satjit Bhusri, MD, cardiologist and founder of Upper East Side Cardiology in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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And so, symptoms can crop up all over your body, because your heart is at the center of your health. "The heart is the engine of the body. If it slows down, has a short circuit or gets clogged, the engine fails," Dr. Bhusri says.
Don't wait for heart disease or a heart attack to strike. It's important to pay attention to the signs that your all-important engine may need a tune-up. Here are seven symptoms of an unhealthy heart to watch out for.
1. You Snore
Many people snore every now and then, but regularly (and loudly) sawing wood is a sign of sleep apnea — a sleep disorder marked by pauses in breathing, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
While people with sleep apnea don't realize it, they may stop breathing up to 20 or 30 times an hour during sleep, often gasping or snorting when they start breathing again. These pauses typically don't wake the person, but a bed partner might notice this kind of pattern during the night.
Sleep apnea is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, per Johns Hopkins Medicine, including a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. It can lead to an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, which put extra stress on your ticker.
Talk to your doctor if you snore. You may benefit from using a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) device, which gently blows air into your throat to keep your airway open during the night.
2. You Have Less Hair on Your Legs
Hair loss is often a normal part of aging. Hair naturally begins to thin as we age, and you may be genetically prone to less luscious locks over time.
But hair loss on the legs, specifically, can be a sign of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or poor circulation caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the legs and feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
PAD puts you at risk for developing coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Other symptoms of PAD include smooth, shiny skin and a cooler skin temperature. Some people also have pain in their legs when walking, muscle weakness and cold or numb toes.
3. You’re Dog-Tired
It's easy to assume that low energy is a consequence of a busy lifestyle and brush it off as something you need to slog through every day, but the problem may stem from your heart.
"When the heart muscle or valves begin to fail, it may be a slow failure, and the symptoms may well be so subtle as fatigue," Dr. Bhusri says.
If you're otherwise getting the sleep you need but you still have a sense of fatigue, it's a red flag.
4. You Have to Catch Your Breath Climbing Stairs
Walking up a flight of stairs leaves you huffing and puffing — could it be you're just out of shape?
If you find you can no longer tolerate exercise the way you once did or can't get through everyday activities (like climbing stairs), that's a clue your ticker may not be in tip-top shape because it can't effectively pump blood around your body.
Shortness of breath and exercise intolerance could signal a number of heart problems, including coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy or heart valve issues. Don't assume you just need some HIIT to fix it — get it checked out.
5. You Feel Really Anxious
OK, there's a lot to be anxious about in the world. But anxiety can often be a symptom of a heart problem.
"When the electricity [of the heart] short circuits, it may manifest as anxiety or palpitations," Dr. Bhusri says. (Palpitations are when your heart feels like it's skipping a beat. That alone can feed anxiety.)
Stress, anxiety and panic attacks can cause palpitations, and anxiety disorders are also associated with cardiovascular problems, according to November 2017 research in Current Psychiatry Reports.
Bottom line: Even if you think it's regular old anxiety, you should still get your heart checked out, because your mental health can affect your heart down the line.
6. You’re Often Dizzy
Poor blood circulation makes it difficult to get enough blood into your brain and inner ear (which maintains your sense of balance), according to the Mayo Clinic.
If your heart can't pump blood where it needs to go, you may feel woozy, lightheaded or dizzy upon standing, or you might even faint.
7. You Have Pain, Burning or Tightness in Your Chest Area
It could be heartburn — but it might not be.
"When the [heart's] plumbing is clogged, it may present slowly as vague pains around the chest, arm, neck and back," Dr. Bhusri says.
Pay attention to these, especially if you notice them during any kind of exercise or exertion. Pain, burning or tightness like this always warrants a call to your doctor.
8. Your Gums Bleed When You Brush
Notice that simple brushing and flossing is causing your gums to bleed? Red toothpaste suds are not normal and can indicate gingivitis (inflamed gums) or gum disease.
For your heart, though, periodontitis (gum disease) is associated with higher systolic blood pressure and poorer blood pressure control for people taking blood pressure-lowering medications, per an October 2018 study in Hypertension.
Talk to your dentist about ways you can improve your oral health, but mention this to your doctor, too.
9. Your Resting Heart Rate Is Higher Than Normal
To take your resting heart rate, place your index and middle finger on your wrist below your thumb or on one side of your neck to find your pulse. Count the number of beats for 30 seconds, and multiply that number by two for your beats per minute (bpm) score, per Harvard Health Publishing.
If you have 60 to 100 bpm (and ideally below 90 bpm), it's an indication that your heart muscle is working well. Anything higher than that (or much higher than normal for you) deserves a mention at your next checkup.
The Bottom Line
Make a commitment to get your heart checked out if you notice any of the above symptoms or are concerned about your heart health.
"Any and all signs of increased fatigue, vague heartburn symptoms and abnormal heart rate should always be screened for heart disease. All too often, care is sought after the damage is already done," Dr. Bhusri says.
Call your primary care doctor and get on the schedule. Your heart will love you for it.
- Northwestern Medicine: “Symptoms of Mitral Valve Disease”
- Mayo Clinic: “Heart Palpitations”
- Current Psychiatry Reports: “Anxiety disorders and cardiovascular disease”
- Mayo Clinic: “Dizziness”
- National Organization for Rare Disorders. “Orthostatic Hypotension”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Bleeding gums”
- Hypertension: “Poor Oral Health and Blood Pressure Control Among US Hypertensive Adults”
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Your resting heart rate can reflect your current—and future—health.”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Why Do People Snore? Answers for Better Health"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.