Most of us know that carrying extra weight around the midsection, otherwise known as a spare tire, can increase the risk of a heart attack. Likewise, we are aware that smoking cigarettes or living a sedentary lifestyle may increase the chances of having a stroke, and an unhealthy diet can raise the odds of cardiovascular problems. But did you know that not all signs of heart disease are quite so obvious?
The human body does an incredible job of providing warning signals when things are out of balance. Multiple subtle signs may indicate that you are at an increased risk for heart disease. If you lean in and listen closely to your body, you may be surprised at what it reveals. Read on to find out if any of the following clues apply to you or your loved ones.
Heart disease: the obvious risk factors
The chances that you have cardiovascular disease or know someone who does are pretty high. After all, nearly half of all U.S. adults live with heart disease. In fact, it’s the number one killer in the United States, claiming close to 700,000 lives each year.
High blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes are all relatively familiar signs that someone might be at increased risk for heart problems. Other common risk factors of heart disease include:
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet
- Lack of quality sleep
- High levels of stress
- Excessive drinking
- Hormone disruptors such as birth control pills
The risk factors listed above are modifiable. This means that if you take measures to change behavior, you can alter your risk. However, heart disease also has non-modifiable risk factors, including age, sex, and family history.
Why it’s important to understand your risk
They say that knowledge is power. However, it’s truly the ability to act on this knowledge that brings strength. This is certainly true when it comes to health. So many people have information, but what they do with that information can make the difference between life and death.
For example, there’s no doubt that cardiovascular disease has a hereditary component. In fact, one study concluded that children of parents with premature heart disease have 60-75 percent higher odds of developing a cardiovascular condition. As a result, some people walk through life with an “I’m doomed” philosophy. “My Dad had a heart attack, so I probably will too.” This mindset couldn’t be further from the truth.
Understanding risk helps one modify their behaviors and increase their chances of a full, healthy life. In fact, one study found that by following a healthy lifestyle, people at high familial risk for coronary heart disease could cut their odds of developing the disease in half. In addition, a 2019 study found that lifestyle was much more important than genetics when it comes to warding off heart disease.
Nine surprising signs of heart disease
Apart from the obvious, you may not be aware of lesser-known risk factors for heart disease. It’s important to note that just because one of the following applies to you does not mean you are destined to have heart disease. However, it could offer a clue about your potential risk.
1. How long are your fingers?
What does the length of your fingers have to do with your heart? Turns out, it might mean more than you think. Researchers compared ring and index finger lengths and concluded that a shorter ring finger might indicate impending heart trouble, especially for men.
Testosterone is thought to protect against heart disease, and higher exposure in the womb is protective. A 2001 study showed a decreased risk of early heart attacks in men with an index finger that was the same length or longer than the ring finger. If you have a short ring finger, you may have a higher chance of heart disease.
2. Where do you live?
A 2021 study has confirmed what many have long known: cardiovascular health is the poorest in the southern part of the United States. A previous study found that the states with the highest death rates due to heart disease are concentrated in the South.
Living in the north doesn’t necessarily protect you either. Research shows an association between lower air temperatures and increased risk of cardiovascular events. For example, a 2016 study found lower air temperatures and temperature swings were associated with an increased risk of stroke hospitalizations.
It’s not only geographical location that matters, but altitude could also impact heart health. A 2017 study found that those living at higher altitudes had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome than those who resided at lower altitudes.
No matter where you live, the fact remains that your environment significantly impacts your heart health.
3. How tall are you?
Height matters when it comes to the heart. In a thorough 2010 study that included data from over three million people, researchers found that shorter adults had a 50 percent higher risk of developing heart disease, having a heart attack, or dying from cardiovascular problems than taller people. The results held true regardless of sex.
In a more recent study, scientists found that for every two-and-a-half-inch increase in height, the risk of coronary artery disease decreased by nearly 14 percent for men.
Researchers aren’t certain why shorter individuals are at higher risk for cardiovascular problems, although some speculate that genetics or poor maternal health may play a role.
4. How healthy is your hair?
Hair loss is bad enough, but what if we told you that it might indicate cardiovascular disease. According to studies, a receding hairline or thinning hair at the crown of the head could mean that the body’s circulatory system is not working correctly. A lack of blood to the hair follicles may be related to circulation.
And it’s not just hair loss that should have you concerned. A 2017 study also linked premature graying of the hair to heart disease. Researchers found that men with coronary artery disease were five times more likely to have gone gray than their healthy counterparts.
Hair loss, thinning, or early graying may signal systemic DNA damage that can impact your heart.
5. Are you happy in the bedroom?
Many people attribute trouble performing in the bedroom to aging. However, sexual dysfunction may be one of the first signs of heart disease. Numerous studies have linked erectile dysfunction and difficulty achieving orgasm to cardiovascular disease.
The circulatory system is all connected. Therefore, impeded blood flow to one area of the body is unlikely to be isolated. If you have noticed a decline in your sex life, you may want to get your heart evaluated.
6. Do you have creases in your earlobes?
The next time you look in the mirror, check out your ears. Do you have an earlobe crease? According to researchers, this crease, also called Frank’s sign, is associated with heart disease. Normal earlobes appear smooth, but an earlobe with a crease has a line, a small fold, or a wrinkle.
7. How strong is your handshake?
Next time you shake your doctor’s hand, they may be doing more than saying hello. Believe it or not, science has demonstrated that handgrip strength is a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease and death. In fact, a weak grip has been linked to a seven percent higher risk of heart attack and a 17 percent increased risk of death from heart disease.
While scientists are not sure the exact mechanisms by which grip strength correlates to heart disease, it’s suggested that muscle strength is an indicator of what’s happening in the rest of the body. More frail individuals have weaker grasps, which extrapolates out to a more fragile composition as a whole.
8. What’s the condition of your skin?
Cardiovascular disease affects all areas of the body, including the skin. In fact, the color, texture, and temperature of the skin are strongly influenced by the condition of the heart.
For example, a yellowish-orange bumpy rash may be caused by unhealthy cholesterol accumulating under the skin. Referred to as eruptive xanthoma, this skin rash occurs due to high triglyceride levels. Other skin disorders related to the heart include brownish or reddish discoloration spots on the hands or feet or bluish-toned skin on your extremities – both of which indicate poor circulation.
If you experience any skin problems, you may want to consult your cardiologist in addition to your dermatologist.
9. How’s your breath?
Bad breath is more than an embarrassment. It’s also a sign that something is awry in your mouth. Your mouth has its very own community of bacteria that work together to keep it healthy. Bad breath is often a sign that your oral microbiota is off.
Foul-smelling breath may also be a sign of gum disease. Numerous studies have linked gum disease to heart problems, with the likely culprit of both being inflammation.
Don’t ignore the subtle signs
When reflecting back, most heart attack survivors recall warning signals. Perhaps they were more tired than usual. Maybe they remember feeling a little dizzy in the days prior. Unfortunately, they ignored the signs until it was too late.
The human body wants to alert us when something is out of balance. Whether it’s a rash, thinning hair, or an unsatisfying sex life, the heart may be trying to get your attention. By taking a moment to address the subtle signs as they arise, you can often ward off major health catastrophes and achieve your 100 Year Heart.
Thinking of heart disease can be scary. Often, the signs are subtle and easy to miss. If you have any risk factors for heart disease or have been feeling “off” lately, consider scheduling a free 20-minute coaching call with a health coach on the Natural Heart Doctor team. We’d love to talk with you and discuss lifestyle strategies to support optimal heart health and unlock your body’s innate healing potential.
Eat Well, Live Well, Think Well
Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD 202