Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. In fact, one person dies every 34 seconds in the country from heart disease, which was responsible for one in every five deaths in 2020.
But despite how common —and deadly — heart disease is, many people don't know all that much about it. "Heart disease is any problem that takes place in the heart," Dr. Columbus Batiste, a cardiologist and co-founder of Healthy Heart Nation tells Yahoo Life. "That could mean the arteries, it could mean the electrical system, it could mean the pump. So just like your car, you have different aspects to the heart that can run into problems."
Heart disease affects men and women, but it disproportionately impacts communities of color, Batiste says. It also tends to happen alongside other illnesses. "Heart disease ... often runs with high blood pressure, it runs with diabetes, it runs with high cholesterol, it runs with inactivity, it runs with stress, which impacts so many Americans," he says.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says one of the largest groups affected by heart disease is 65 and older.
But Batiste says that heart disease "sneaks up on you," making it important to have some awareness of this serious illness. So, what are the signs of heart disease to look out for? Here's what you need to know.
1. Make sure you know the symptoms of heart disease
Heart disease is an umbrella term that refers to several heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, which affects the blood flow to the heart, per the CDC. With that, symptoms can vary.
Heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until someone has a heart event like a heart attack. Those symptoms typically include, per the CDC:
Fluttering feelings in the chest
shortness of breath
swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck
chest pain or discomfort
upper back or neck pain
nausea or vomiting
upper body discomfort
shortness of breath
With a heart attack, one of the first symptoms is "chest discomfort that persists," Batiste says. That can be followed by shortness of breath and fatigue "where you just have zero energy," he says, adding that symptoms of discomfort that travel down the arm or to the neck and jaw, along with becoming sweaty, are concerning. "When they persist, you need to go in and seek evaluation as soon as possible," Batiste says.
2. Know if you're at risk for heart disease
The biggest controllable risk factor for heart disease is diet, Batiste says. "Our food really impacts our development of chronic disease," he says. He lists off the following as foods that can raise your risk of heart disease:
highly processed foods
foods that are high in fat
The development of heart disease by way of plaques that form in the arteries of the heart can start before the age of 10, Batiste says. "We see this upward increase throughout the decades of life is," he adds.
Other risk factors for heart disease, per the CDC, include:
high blood pressure
overweight or obesity
excessive alcohol use
3. Heart disease is treatable with medication
Research has shown that "aggressive medications" can slowly and subtly reverse heart disease, Batiste says, along with following a plant-based diet. Treatments like a stent and even open heart surgery can also help, depending on what form of heart disease a person has and how severe it is, he says.
Medicare should help cover screening tests, like primary care doctor's visits and treatments for heart disease, Batiste says.
4. Don't hesitate to dial 911
It's important to first call 911 if someone is having a heart attack, Batiste says. "[Don't] try and get them in your car, [don't] try and move them or anything of that sort, but call 911 immediately, and stay by their side," he says.
If the person doesn't have an allergy to aspirin and you have one available, you can offer them one. "Chewing an aspirin immediately ...becomes important," Batiste says. Chewing the medication allows it to be absorbed into the lining of the mouth immediately, he explains. An aspirin can help decrease clotting that could be blocking a blood vessel. "It won't alleviate completely, but it's very helpful," he adds.
5. You can prevent heart disease — and work to make yourself healthier
It's "never too late" to improve your health and heart disease risk factors, Batiste says. "Every small step matters." That includes increasing your daily activity levels and eating a healthy diet that's high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
"It begins this process of transformation underneath the surface before it may manifest externally," Batiste says.
"There's no magic pill for any of this stuff." That, he says, is why a healthy lifestyle is so crucial in the prevention of heart disease.