How to recognise the signs of heart disease

Clinical Adviser at Bupa UK
30 September 2016

As we get older, many of us start to worry about our future health. If you have a family history of heart disease, or niggly symptoms you’re not sure about, it’s natural to be concerned. Our guide to the signs of heart disease explains who might be at risk of heart disease, what symptoms you might have and when to see a doctor.

Man having his heart checked

What exactly is heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is when the large vessels that supply blood to your heart muscle become narrow or blocked by a fatty material called atheroma. As the blood vessels narrow, less blood and oxygen reaches the muscle. Most people have no symptoms at all, until the blood vessels become very narrow. Once this happens, you may start to get chest pains.

Who is at risk?

Some people are more likely to develop heart disease than others because of their lifestyle or other health conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can all speed up the build-up of fatty material in your blood vessels. If you’re a smoker, are inactive, eat unhealthily or are carrying extra weight, especially around your middle, your risk is greater too.

There are some things that increase your chances of developing heart disease that you can’t change. You’re more likely to develop heart disease:

  • as you get older
  • if you’re male
  • if you have a close relative (parent, brother or sister) who developed heart disease before age 55 for men or 65 for women

If you think you’re more likely to get heart disease, then what can you do about it?

Getting a health check

You can have a health check to see how healthy your heart is. The NHS has a health check programme. If you’re between 40 and 75, and registered with a GP, you should automatically be invited for one every five years.

At a health check, you have your blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels tested and your height and weight measured. You’ll also be asked about your lifestyle, health problems and any heart problems in your family.

Once the check is done, you should come away with an idea of your future risk of developing heart disease and also how you can lower that risk and stay healthy. That might include lifestyle changes to make, such as losing weight or stopping smoking, and support to make those changes. You might also need to see your GP to start treatment that could prevent heart disease, such as taking medicines for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

The symptoms of heart disease

One of the main symptoms of heart disease is chest pain (angina). It’s a pain that:

  • feels like squeezing, pressure or tightness in your chest, which can spread to your jaw, neck, shoulders and arms
  • comes on when you are active or stressed
  • goes after you have been resting for about five minutes

You can also have heart disease without getting chest pain, and some people have symptoms that are more like indigestion instead.

There are other signs and symptoms of heart disease as well as chest pain. You can feel short of breath and extremely tired. You might feel sick or find that you’re belching a lot. Some people also find they sweat a lot and feel light-headed. 

If you’re worried that you might be at greater risk of heart disease then talk to your GP practice about a health check. In some areas, there are drop in sessions you can attend locally. If you’re concerned you might have had the symptoms of heart disease, see your GP as soon as you can. If you have chest pain that lasts longer than 15 minutes and you’re breathless, sweating or feel sick then dial 999 straightaway.

Worried about your heart health?

In some of our health centres, we offer a speciality coronary health check. The assessment looks for evidence of existing heart disease, identifies risk factors and offers practical advice about lifestyle changes.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health. You’ll receive a personalised lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a healthier, happier you. 

Dr Yassir Javaid
Clinical Adviser at Bupa UK

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