Feb. 18, 2012 -- High blood pressure, stress, and diabetes are all familiar warning signs that someone's at risk for cardiovascular disease. But there are other red flags that most of us are not aware of, such as hair loss, or problems in the bedroom. By paying attention to risk factors, and using them as cues to make healthy changes in your life, there's a lot that can be done to prevent cardiovascular damage early on, says Dr. Rene Alvarez, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cardiovascular Institute. Here are six unusual signs of heart disease -- and what you can do to protect yourself.
1. Sexual dysfunction
Heart disease may be the last thing on your mind when you're cuddling close to your significant other, but trouble performing may be a concern for heart health as well as sexual health. Dr. Alvarez says that although sexual dysfunction in men and women is different, the issue linking it to heart disease is the same: When blood vessels don't work well, sexual problems can occur. "If you have dysfunction in one circulatory area you have it in others," he says.
Do this. Treat both issues. With good medical therapy and healthy lifestyle changes, both sexual dysfunction and heart disease can be avoided. Dr. Alvarez recommends regular exercise, and talking with your physician about daily aspirin use and your vascular health, to resolve both problems.
2. Male pattern baldness
Loss of hair is more than an issue of appearance -- it may mean loss of circulation, according to a correlation between top rear head balding and cardiovascular disease described in a recent t issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. Dr. Alvarez says lack of circulation to the hair follicles may be related to heart circulation, although other factors may play a role in the connection. "Some patients who have male pattern baldness may smoke, have hypertension, or a genetic predisposition relating to heart disease," he notes.
Do this. Watch and be aware. Knowing your family history -- both of baldness and heart disease—can help you asses your own risk. If either runs in the family, it's extra reason to take steps to prevent hypertension and high cholesterol levels, and to avoid or quit smoking.
3. Snoring and sleep apnea
Sawing logs may cause your heart to struggle. A study from Emory University in Atlanta found that the obstructed airways in people who have sleep apnea or snore were linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Disturbed sleep may be a predisposition of high blood pressure and diabetes, both contributing to heart disease, says Dr. Alvarez.
Do this. Prevent future problems now. The good news is that this warning sign gives you lots of time to take action. "Sleep-disordered breathing typically occurs decades before it's diagnosed, and decades before signs of cardiovascular disease events," says Dr. Alvarez. If you have these nighttime symptoms, take a sleep test and get advice from a specialist to improve your quality of sleep and quality of life, he suggests.
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Headaches may lead to heartaches as well. Women who experience migraines with visual or sensory disturbance at least once a month are twice as likely to develop heart disease, says a study published in June by the American Academy of Neurology. Dr. Alvarez says circulation irregularities that cause the severe headaches may contribute to heart problems. "If you find a vascular abnormality in one territory of the body, you're likely to find it in another," he says.
Do this. Mind the warning sign. Talk with your physician about what a migraine may mean for your heart. Circulatory problems anywhere in the body should stimulate doctors to look for other areas of the body affected as well, Dr. Alvarez says.
5. Eating and drinking plastic
Toss your plastic water bottles into a recycling bin. According to a University of Cincinnati study, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) found in hard plastic food and beverage containers can produce an estrogenlike molecule that mimics estrogen's effects, creating a heightened risk for heart disease in women. Dr. Alvarez says BPA "could create too much estrogen or block the effects of its benefits."
Do this. Replace # 7 plastic food containers and water bottles—that's the type likely to contain BPA—with stainless steel, glass, or ceramic ones. If you're not ready to banish other types of plastic containers, be sure you never heat them up, since this can cause other chemicals to leach into their contents.
6. Marital stress
Frequent arguments in your relationship may increase a woman's odds of an actual broken heart. A University of Utah study found women suffering from marital stress were at risk for additional symptoms of heart disease. Differences in hormones and how the sexes handle stress may explain why men were not similarly affected. "Women's hearts are very different than men's hearts in terms of circulation and receptors they have for certain hormones," says Dr. Alvarez.
Do this. Take a deep breath. Stress can result in high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, and depression. Dr. Alvarez suggests people with difficulties controlling stress should seek help with coping. "We all have stress and how we respond is very different, but there are methods to deal with your perception of stress and limit it," he says. Try stress-reduction tactics like regular exercise, yoga, and mindfulness mediation. For relationship-related stress, discuss the option of marital counseling with your partner.
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