In this article, we discuss the symptoms and warning signs of heart problems, including chest pain, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeat, along with the most common types of heart diseases faced among Australians today. Learn the risk factors associated with heart disease and the importance of seeking medical attention when necessary, and how you can prevent heart disease with the help of a free healthy lifestyle program called the Life! program.
What is heart disease?
‘Heart disease’ is a term we all hear a lot, but what exactly is it? Actually, it’s a general term for several conditions that affect the heart. These conditions include:
- Coronary heart disease (CHD)
- Heart failure
- Valve disease
What are the different types of heart disease?
Coronary heart disease
Coronary heart disease (CHD) is also known as coronary artery disease (CAD) and ischaemic heart disease. It’s caused by a build-up of fatty substances on the walls of the coronary arteries — the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with oxygen. Eventually, this build-up can interrupt or block the blood supply to the heart.
Coronary heart disease is a very serious condition. In fact, it’s the most common type of heart disease and the number-one cause of death in Australia (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).
One of the most common types of heart disease is heart attack.
If a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, it can cause a heart attack. When this happens, the part of the heart muscle that is affected can be damaged or can even die.
When it comes to the signs of a heart attack, it’s important to remember that the order that they appear in and how long they last can vary a lot. Some occur suddenly and painfully while others start with mild symptoms that gradually get worse.
Every heart attack is a medical emergency.
Symptoms & Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve pain or discomfort in the centre of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. The pain/discomfort can feel like pressure, squeezing, heaviness or tightness, and it may spread to the arms (particularly the left arm), neck, jaw, back or stomach.
- Dizziness and shortness of breath. Suddenly feeling unsteady or dizzy can be a sign that your heart isn’t pumping properly. If this is accompanied by chest pain/discomfort, it is a strong sign of heart attack.
- Nausea and/or vomiting. Shortly before a heart attack, some people experience indigestion or nausea. They may vomit. Again, if this is accompanied by chest pain/discomfort, it is a strong sign of heart attack.
Heart failure means that the heart has become too weak to pump blood around the body properly. This weakness can be caused by previous heart attacks, long-term high blood pressure or heart muscle abnormalities (which are technically called cardiomyopathies).
Heart failure is a long-term condition that tends to get gradually worse over time.
Main Signs & Symptoms of Heart Failure
- breathlessness after activity or at rest
- feeling tired most of the time
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- swollen ankles and legs.
These symptoms can develop quickly (acute heart failure) or gradually over weeks or months (chronic heart failure).
Your heart has four valves that keep your blood flowing in one direction. If they become damaged, they can stop opening and closing properly.
A person could be born with valve disease or develop it as a result of other heart conditions such as heart attack or heart failure. It can also be caused by rheumatic heart disease, which is when your heart valves are damaged by your immune system’s response to bacterial infection — called acute rheumatic fever (ARF).
Symptoms & Warning Signs of Heart Valve Disease
Heart valve disease symptoms might not show themselves for many years. When they do appear, they might include:
- chest pain
- abdominal swelling
- shortness of breath, particularly when active or lying down
- swollen ankles and feet
- irregular heartbeat.
A heart arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat. This occurs when the electrical signals that control the heart’s pumping action don’t work properly, causing the heart to beat too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia) or irregularly.
Symptoms & Warning Signs of Arrhythmias
Some heart arrhythmias are harmless, while others cause symptoms that are bothersome and even life-threatening. The most common symptoms include:
- palpitations (feeling like your heart rate is racing, thumping or fluttering)
- chest pain or discomfort
- shortness of breath
- feeling unwell
- fainting or nearly fainting.
Risk factors for heart disease
There are various risk factors that increase your chance of developing heart disease and stroke. Some are lifestyle related and can be prevented.
Lifestyle risk factors for heart disease
- an unhealthy diet
- being inactive (not exercising enough)
- unhealthy weight
- drinking too much alcohol.
Risk factors for heart disease that cannot be controlled
- family history
- sex — males are at a higher risk than females who are pre-menopause
- female-specific risk factors, such as complications during pregnancy
- ethnic background
- social environment — people living in low socioeconomic areas are at higher risk of having a heart attack or dying due to heart disease
Prevention of heart disease
The Heart Foundation has outlined ten things you can do for a heart-healthy lifestyle.
- Follow a heart-healthy eating pattern
- Move more
- Be smoke free
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Drink less alcohol
- Reduce stress
- Manage your cholesterol
- Manage your blood pressure
- Manage your blood sugar
- See your GP for a heart health check.
It’s important to speak to your doctor to see if you are at risk. If you are, find a prevention program that works for you.
Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that can help you prevent any serious heart conditions. Run by expert health professionals, you’ll be able to access resources, information and the support you need to lower your risk of heart disease.
Since 2007, over 75,000 Victorians have learnt more about living a healthy life with the Life! program. It is the largest prevention program of its kind in Australia.
You can take a quick online health test and check your eligibility for the program here.