Heart Health: The Quiet Signs Of Heart Disease

Nursing School

Written by Dr. Sheba Price, Nursing Faculty for Arizona College of Nursing

What does heart health mean to you? It’s fair to say many of us think of heart health as preventing a heart attack and may conjure up images of someone clutching their chest. But heart attacks are only one type of heart disease that affects heart health, and stabbing pain in the chest isn’t the only sign your heart is in danger. We often ignore the quiet signs telling us our hearts need attention.

Let’s focus on three heart diseases that contribute to increased hospitalization, decreased quality of life, and increased risk of death. By understanding the types of heart health and recognizing their symptoms, we can better address our overall heart health.

Atrial Fibrillation

Have you ever felt that your heart rhythm was irregular, or your heart was beating too fast? That’s what atrial fibrillation feels like. Atrial fibrillation is a change in the heartbeat or rhythm where the top part of the heart muscle quivers instead of contracting. Sometimes, people feel it come and go or don’t feel any symptoms. Your risk increases with age, but it can affect younger individuals, too.

Atrial fibrillation, left unaddressed, can cause blood clots, increasing the risk of organ damage, stroke, heart failure, and death. Atrial fibrillation may present as recognizable symptoms of heart diseases like palpitations and chest pain. Other common symptoms can be shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, and reduced ability to exercise. Both men and women are at risk for developing atrial fibrillation, but men tend to develop symptoms more often than women, so women should pay close attention to anything that feels not of the ordinary.

Coronary Artery Disease

Heart Health Month Picture Another disease of the heart is coronary artery disease (CAD). A diagnosis of CAD means a reduction of blood flow to the heart muscle due to plaque buildup in the heart’s arteries. It is also the most common of all heart diseases. If CAD is left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to a heart attack. That’s why your annual physical is essential to determine your risk of CAD. We repeatedly hear about the importance of diet, exercise, and sleep, and for good reason. The first line of defense against CAD is lifestyle changes. A buildup of plaque in your arteries doesn’t appear overnight, so it’s never too early to practice healthy habits that protect your heart.

High blood pressure and cholesterol are indicators that you could have CAD, and both men and women can experience symptoms like chest pain, fatigue, and sweating. Women, especially younger women, can experience lesser-known symptoms like back pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Myocardial Infraction (Heart Attacks)

Heart attacks or myocardial infarction are what we all fear. Myocardial infarction occurs when there is a decrease or complete blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle. Heart attacks are when blood flow is severely reduced or completely blocked. The blockage is usually due to a buildup of fat or cholesterol over time or a rupture of the blockage that forms a clot and stops the blood flow to our heart.
Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women. However, women have an increased rate of dying from a heart attack, often because they don’t recognize the earlier symptoms of heart disease. The most common symptoms for both men and women are chest, arm, and jaw. The pain can be dull, heavy, tight, or a crushing sensation. Women tend to have atypical symptoms more often, such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and fatigue. They can also experience sleepiness, feelings of impending doom, and abdomen pain. It’s easy to explain away some of these symptoms as feeling off or having stress. The reality is these symptoms can indicate something much more serious.

Taking Control of Heart Health

The bottom line is that very rarely do heart attacks come out of the blue. Usually, there are signs that our health needs attention. The risk factors for any heart disease are high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol abuse, high cholesterol, diabetes, lack of exercise, stress, and obesity. Yes, age and heredity play a role. But you can control most of your risk factors.

Even though atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and myocardial infarction are serious issues that could lead to death, these diseases are manageable. The way to manage any disease is to be informed and decide to care for your body. Don’t ignore symptoms because they don’t feel like a severe heart issue. It’s better to address any symptoms, no matter how small, than to fight advanced heart disease. Your choices today go a long way to determining your future health.

Nursing School Faculty Heart Health Dr. Sheba Price is a full-time Arizona College of Nursing faculty member with over 33 years of nursing practice experience. Dr. Price is passionate about providing care for vulnerable patient populations. She has worked in neurosurgery, cardiac, medical-surgical, renal, and critical care. Dr. Price is honored to be teaching and mentoring future nurses.

In tribute to her father, Dr. Price completed the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program from Samford University in 2022. She also holds a Master of Science in Nursing Administration (MSN) from the University of South Alabama and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from Mississippi University for Women.