One person dies every 33 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for men and women, and it doesn’t discriminate amongst racial groups, either. One of the difficulties in diagnosing heart disease is that it can be sneaky, lurking behind subtle symptoms that people might write off as age-related. 

It’s especially important for women to learn to recognize the signs of heart problems, for a few reasons. For one, heart attacks are traditionally considered a men’s disease, but in reality cardiovascular disease kills more women than any other condition, according to Yale New Haven Health. One of the problems leading to the discrepancy is that women experience heart attacks differently than men, and their symptoms might differ from the classic signs like chest pain. Secondly, women are especially vulnerable after menopause, when their levels of estrogen drop, which increases the risk of a heart attack. And thirdly, women often delay getting lifesaving care for heart attack symptoms, either because they don’t recognize their symptoms as being heart-related, or they’re societally conditioned to expect a certain level of discomfort as they get older.

Here are some of the more common symptoms that could indicate you suffer from cardiovascular disease, and some of the sneakier ones as well. 

The Most Common Symptoms: 

  • We can see a man's chest, with one hand grasping at the left side. There is red overlaying where he's grabbing to indicate pain, and there is a blue line that looks like an EKG leading to the redDizziness
  • Changes in Skin Color (blue or gray tinge)
  • Struggling to catch your breath while doing things that used to be easy; struggling to breathe while lying down
  • Swelling in your legs, feet or ankles
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Indigestion and heartburn
  • Nausea and sweating
  • Chest pain, the most common sign (also known as angina), can feel like a dull pressure or a sharp pressing or stabbing pain, which may or may not radiate to the jaw, neck, back or arms.


The Sneaky Symptoms:

In an overwhelmingly white bedroom, an older couple is asleep in bed. The man is snoring with his arm over his head, and the wife is clutching a pillow over her ears.Snoring: Sleep-disordered breathing, like snoring or sleep apnea, is associated with metabolic syndrome, which in turn is associated with heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, between 40 and 80 percent of people in the U.S. with heart disease also have obstructive sleep apnea. It’s actually a vicious cycle: sleep apnea can make heart disease worse, which in turn leads to more serious sleep apnea. 

Leg and/or Hip Pain While Walking: Leg and hip pain can be the result of a lot of things: injuries, arthritis, or accidently tweaking something while playing with the grandkids. But a certain kind of leg pain can also be a sign that you have circulation problems from peripheral artery disease. Circulation-related pain usually occurs when you are active, and ends when you stop, because the obstruction in the artery is limiting the amount of oxygen reaching the muscles via blood. (Lack of oxygen leads to anaerobic energy production, which in turn causes lactic acid buildup in muscle tissue, which is felt as a burning sensation.) The pain stops when you do, because the muscles no longer need that extra amount of oxygen, and the lactic acid can get cleared.

Bedroom Malfunctions: Erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness are both signs of blood-flow issues. For men, the risk factors are similar for vascular ED and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (aka: hardening of the arteries.) Both issues are the result of endothelial dysfunction, which is when blood vessels have difficulty expanding and contracting properly, reducing blood flow. For women, endothelial dysfunction can lead to vaginal dryness, a lack of libido and clitoral sensation. 

Close-up of someone's feet; they are sitting down, and have removed one shoe. Their ankles seem to be pretty swollenSwollen Legs: If your veins can’t transport fluids properly, those fluids are going to obey the laws of gravity and gather in your legs. In one study of adults with no history of cardiovascular disease, fluid in the lower extremities — called pedal edema — was associated with future hospitalizations for heart failure. In this case, swelling would occur in both legs, but if you have swelling in one leg it could be a sign of a blood clot or an infection. 

Unusual Fatigue: This may be the most infuriating symptom of them all. Fatigue is such a vague term — are you suffering from fatigue or just tired? When related to heart disease, though, fatigue is going to be fairly noticeable. As an example: if you need to rest while cooking breakfast, that’s fatigue, and it could be due to lower blood flow to the heart. Fatigue can start to occur months before a heart attack, and it’s the first symptom women in particular notice before having a cardiac event.

Bad Breath: There is quite a strong correlation between people who have periodontal disease and people with cardiovascular disease. This isn’t a matter of direct cause-and-effect, but they are interrelated. Bad breath is caused by an abundance of bacteria in the mouth, which can enter the bloodstream through bleeding or diseased gums. Unhealthy gums are in turn linked to inflammation, clogged arteries, and strokes. 

Nausea: When the heart struggles to pump blood through the body, fluid and pressure can build up in the lungs, abdomen, and lower extremities. Bloating and water retention can sometimes lead to nausea, a decrease in appetite, and feeling full unusually quickly. Women are significantly more likely to report queasiness with a heart attack, and it can also be a sign of heart failure.

A woman lies awake in bed, seemingly unable to fall asleep.Increased Frequency of Nighttime Trips to the Bathroom: We all probably do the dead-of-night trip to the bathroom these days, but if you notice an increased frequency in which you need to do so, be careful. When your heart is weak, it can’t pump as much blood to the kidneys, which then struggle to do their job. This leads to a buildup of fluid, and swollen ankles and legs. Then, when you lie down at bedtime, that fluid follows gravity back up to your organs, and suddenly the kidneys have more fluid to filter: hence the need to pee. So, although getting up once in the night is usually innocent behavior, if you wake up more than once and notice swelling in your legs, it could be a sign of cardiovascular disease.

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