Heart conditions are rampant among women, and you may have one and not even know it. However, there early signs that you may have coronary artery disease (CAD) that aren't so obvious, so you can know what to watch out for and when to seek medical attention. According to the American Heart Association, CAD is used interchangeably with "coronary heart disease" (CHD). However, Edward A. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an American Heart Association volunteer who is the Leon H. Charney Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and also of the Marc and Ruti Bell Vascular Biology and Disease Program at the NYU School of Medicine, said that CHD is a result of CAD. No matter how the condition is labeled, the scary part is, you may have no symptoms at all. This is when regular checkups and blood work come into play.
I know — coronary artery disease sounds complex, and you may be wondering what it is exactly. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, CAD is the most common type of heart disease. As such, it is also the leading cause of death in the U.S. in women and men. In essence, it occurs when arteries become narrow or hardened (atherosclerosis) — due to cholesterol and other material, i.e., plaque — which affects the blood supply to the heart. When the heart cannot get the oxygen or blood it needs, complications occur, such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), a heart attack, or heart failure. The scariest part? Though CAD can be acute and sudden, it can also occur over decades, so the best prevention is maintaining a healthy lifestyle and seeing your medical practitioner regularly, not just when you have symptoms.
"Women can be empowered to impact their risks for cardiovascular disease," Dr. Michael Krychman, MD, OB/GYN, sexual medicine gynecologist and the executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine, tells Bustle. "Healthy living is a good start! Get screened for diabetes and get treated for hypertension. Manage your stress and incorporate exercise into your daily routine. A diet like the Mediterranean diet is cardioprotective, too! Lastly, having a healthy, great sex life can also have far-reaching effects on your overall health."
That said, there are definite warning signs that may indicate coronary artery disease that may surprise you.
1. Chest Pain
According to the Mayo Clinic, chest pain — also known as angina — is a clear indicator that something is amiss, particularly if the pain is on the middle or left side of the chest. "Early signs of coronary artery disease in women include pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest, but it may not be severe or significant," Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women's health expert and author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health, tells Bustle.
It may not last long, and, primarily among women, it may be felt in the neck, arm, or back. You may think chest pain is a given when heart conditions are concerned; however, chest pain can also be attributed to other causes, such as a strained muscle, so it's always best to seek a doctor's opinion.
2. Shortness Of Breath
Dr. Ross says shortness of breath may be a less specific sign. Chances are that you experience shortness of breath sometimes, especially after walking up some stairs or after working out. However, if you experience shortness of breath even when you're in a relaxed state, it may mean a larger issue. Heart-wise, shortness of breath occurs when your heart cannot pump enough blood.
3. Irregular Heartbeat (Arrhythmia)
If your heart seems to be beating too fast or in an irregular pattern, it may be a symptom of CAD. You may notice this since you're used to your heart beating at a pretty regular pace, so it's important to let your doctor know when you experience an irregular heartbeat.
4. High Blood Pressure
People can have high blood pressure without it leading to a heart condition. However, high blood pressure causes the coronary arteries to narrow, due to a buildup of cholesterol, fat, and other substances — i.e., plaque. When the arteries harden, the chance of a blood clot forming increases, which can lead to a heart attack and a sign of an underlying heart condition like CAD.
5. High And Low Cholesterol
Another risk factor for CAD is having high and low cholesterol levels — namely, high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines both types of cholesterol in an easy-to-remember way. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is the "bad" kind, which comprises most of the cholesterol in your body. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is the "good" kind, which absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, which then flushes it from your system. Is anyone else having flashbacks to middle school health class, or is it just me?
WebMD states that quitting smoking is "probably the most important step you can take to decrease your chance of CAD and a heart attack." Many smoking-related factors lead to this — the nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other substances found in the tobacco smoke. They can lead to various symptoms of CAD, including reducing blood flow to the heart and an irregular heartbeat.
7. Heart Attack
When a coronary artery becomes blocked, it could cause a heart attack. Some of the symptoms above may be signs of one, including pain in the chest, shoulder, or arm, and shortness of breath and/or sweating. Some heart attacks present no signs or symptoms, and women may have atypical symptoms, such as neck or jaw pain. If you suspect you are having a heart attack, have someone else drive you to the hospital, states the Mayo Clinic.
All in all, in addition to seeing your doctor regularly for checkups and blood tests to make sure everything's normal, like your cholesterol levels, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key to heart health, too. As Dr. Krychman says, staying active, eating a cardioprotective diet, and not smoking are a few ways to make sure you're doing all you can to prevent CAD and other heart issues.