Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. men and women, accounting for 40% of all U.S. deaths. That's more than all forms of cancer combined.
Why is heart disease so deadly? One reason is that many people are slow to seek help when symptoms arise. Yes, someone gripped by sudden chest pain probably knows to call 911. But heart symptoms aren't always intense or obvious, and they vary from person to person and according to gender.
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Because it can be hard to make sense of heart symptoms, doctors warn against ignoring possible warning signs, waiting to see if they go away, or being quick to blame them on heartburn, muscle soreness, or other less serious, noncardiac causes. That's especially true for people over 65, as well as for people with heart risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease.
"The more risk factors you have, the higher the likelihood that a symptom means something is going on with your heart," says David Frid, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "People often don't want to admit that they're old enough or sick enough to have heart trouble. Putting off treatment for other medical problems might not be so bad, but a serious heart problem can mean sudden death."
12 Heart Symptoms Never to Ignore
Here are a dozen symptoms that may signal heart trouble.
1. Anxiety. Heart attack can cause intense anxiety or a fear of death. Heart attack survivors often talk about having experienced a sense of "impending doom."
2. Chest discomfort. Pain in the chest is the classic symptom of heart attack, and "the No. 1 symptom that we typically look for," says Jean C. McSweeney, PhD, RN, associate dean for research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Nursing in Little Rock and a pioneer in research on heart symptoms in women. But not all heart attacks cause chest pain, and chest pain can stem from ailments that have nothing to do with the heart.
Heart-related chest pain is often centered under the breastbone, perhaps a little to the left of center. The pain has been likened to "an elephant sitting on the chest," but it can also be an uncomfortable sensation of pressure, squeezing, or fullness. "It's not unusual for women to describe the pain as a minor ache," McSweeney says. "Some women say the pain wasn't bad enough even to take a Tylenol."
Women, more so than men, can also experience a burning sensation in their chest, rather than a pressure or pain. "Sometimes people make the mistake that the pain comes from a stomach problem," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City and another expert on women's heart symptoms.