7 Heart warning signs not to ignore

Heart health is no joking matter. If you're facing an increased risk  of a serious heart condition, you don't have the luxury of turning a  blind eye to your problems. Cardiovascular health problems can appear  seemingly out of nowhere, making it all the more important that you  recognize the symptoms of a condition requiring medical attention.

At  the same time, if you're worried about the likelihood of suffering a  heart attack, you don't have to sit around and wait for fate to make its  decision. For almost every major risk factor affecting your heart  health, there are steps you can take to address these risks and improve  your cardiovascular health.  Here are seven risks and warning signs to keep you vigilant of your  heart's health while guiding you toward healthier, heart-happy lifestyle  changes.

1. Smoking

Smoking stresses the  cardiovascular system in many different ways, such as reducing your  blood oxygen levels and hardening your arteries. Smoking can also  exacerbate a number of risk factors already present in your body, so if  you're someone with existing threats to your heart health, smoking can  make some or all of them worse. The cardiovascular effects of smoking  are so great that even nonsmokers can experience an increased risk of  heart issues when exposed to secondhand smoke.

2. High cholesterol

High  levels of cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease and other  heart conditions. But there are different kinds of cholesterol in your  body, and some are more dangerous than others.1  In general,  patients should strive for low levels of LDL cholesterol—or "bad"  cholesterol—while increasing their body's HDL cholesterol through foods  like olive oil, whole grains, avocado, beans, fatty fish, and flax seed.

"Higher levels of HDL cholesterol can help counteract the risks of high LDL cholesterol," Parrish Medical Group physician Jibril D. Skaden, MD.  "Another important type of fat is triglycerides, which represent the  buildup of fat deposits along artery walls. High levels of triglycerides  can also increase an individual's risk of a serious heart condition,  such as a heart attack or stroke."

3. Chest pains

Chest pains are often an urgent sign that medical attention is needed.  This often presents as an early symptom of a heart attack, and it  should be taken seriously. Any pain, tightness, or general chest  discomfort should be met with quick medical attention. Don't wait for  these early signs to worsen into a full-blown heart attack.

4. High blood pressure

When  patients have high blood pressure, their hearts are working extra hard  to pump blood throughout their body. Over time, this leads to a  thickening of the heart muscles, and this thickened muscle can lead to  abnormalities in how the heart functions, increasing the risk of heart  attack, strokes, heart failure and other life-threatening conditions.

5. Pain or numbness in your extremities

When  arteries narrow, and/or when heart pumping performance declines,  circulation throughout the body may worsen. This can lead to numbness in  your arms and legs, as well as weakness and a sense of coldness. If  this develops, have a doctor check your heart to determine whether a  circulation issue is to blame. Depending on the severity, a treatment  plan may be able to address the underlying cause before more serious  complications arise.2

6. Being overweight

Similar  to smoking, obesity can exacerbate other risk factors in the body,  making the dangers of a heart health condition all the more urgent. High  cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other risk factors can be  compounded by the lifestyle habits connected to obesity, and they can  increase the likelihood of these risk factors leading to a serious heart  emergency.

"The good news for overweight patients is that small  strides in weight loss can have a significant impact on heart health,"  says a Parrish Medical Group physician, Benjamin R. Nettleton, MD.  "Research suggests that losing three to five percent of your body  weight can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as  blood glucose, which can also affect heart health."

7. Shortness of breath

If  you're having trouble breathing, don't assume it's a lung issue:  Shortness of breath can by a sign of heart disease or a heart attack, reflecting your body's struggles to oxygenate your blood. If you start  experiencing shortness of breath, have you or a loved one call 911 immediately. The faster you can address the issue, the better chance  you'll have at minimizing the severity of your condition.

By knowing the risk factors as well as the signs of potential heart health  issues, individuals at risk for heart issues can make health-conscious  lifestyle changes while also remaining alert if serious signs of illness  do develop.

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