Feeling your age? It might be your heart

As we get older, we slow down. Or so we're told. But, what if the slowdown is really a sign of something more?

"A lot of times, people believe that a change in their functional capacity or their ability to do their normal activities is 'just getting older,'" explains Dr. Jeffrey Freihage, interventional cardiologist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill. "Age itself isn't going to slow you down. It might be arthritis. It might be heart disease. It might be any number of things."

While many people know the classic signs of a heart attack - chest pain and numbness in the left arm - it's harder for most to identify the other symptoms associated with heart disease and failure.

"We associate pressure, tightness or burning in the chest with coronary artery disease (CAD)," continues Freihage. "Sometimes people experience fatigue, shortness of breath or pain that radiates to the lower jaw. Any of these symptoms could be signs of CAD, especially if the pain starts with physical exertion- a brisk walk or mowing the lawn - and goes away after resting. This jaw discomfort symptom is a major red flag to me that the person may have CAD."

CAD occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries of the heart, narrowing blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the heart muscle. If left unaddressed, CAD often leads to a heart attack. Other signs of heart trouble include fatigue, pain in the bicep or elbow, breaking out in a cold sweat, severe indigestion or heart burn, nausea, dizziness, and sudden feelings of anxiety or doom.

"People know when something isn't right. So, don't blow it off, especially if your symptoms don't resolve when you're resting," urges Freihage. "If you feel like you can't do something you used to do, or you get fatigued more easily, it's time to see your physician and understand what's really going on."

To stave off heart disease - and any symptoms you might associate with aging - all together, Freihage strongly recommends regular primary care check-ups to screen for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease and other risk factors, like smoking, that dramatically increase the likelihood of heart trouble.

"The thing about cardiac disease and prevention is that it's an ongoing relationship with your doctor and an ongoing treatment plan," Freihage concludes. "Surveillance is key."

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