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How to Recognize the Signs of Heart Disease in Aging Family Members

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Whether heading home for a special occasion or simply checking in on aging loved ones, take the time to assess hidden signs of heart disease, which is America’s number-one killer and an issue that has been complicated due to pandemic-related delays in seeking care, weight gain, and heart damage from COVID cardiovascular complications (myocarditis, etc.)

We want to get patients at earlier stages of heart disease, and we have the technology today that can resolve heart problems so that people can return to their normal, more engaged lives. Don’t wait for a heart attack or a cardiac arrest. Adult children can play a vital role in identifying parents’ health issues. Tread carefully, but don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel in the family.

In addition to the more obvious signs, like chest pain and high blood pressure, lesser-known symptoms, including behavioral changes can signal a serious heart issue. Here is a heart health checklist to keep in mind:

Disengaged from former daily activities

If your mother or father previously enjoyed gardening or playing tennis and have stopped, it may be a sign of a heart problem. People experiencing heart failure are often extremely fatigued and become tired doing routine tasks, contributing to their loss of interest in activities. Let them know that getting checked may enable them to put the joy back in their life.

Not cooking

Do a cabinet/refrigerator/freezer check to see if your loved one is still cooking for themselves or if they have more premade meals. They may say they just don’t have the energy to cook, which can be a sign of a potential heart problem. Premade foods have more sodium, which exacerbates heart issues.

Can’t walk for six minutes or sit and stand five times

If you notice your loved one getting winded walking up the stairs or unable to walk a short distance without rest, they may well be suffering from a heart problem. Suggest a walk together. If they can’t walk without stopping for six minutes, schedule a doctor visit. Watch for them trying to stop during the walk with an excuse to chat; they may be trying to hide their exhaustion. Suggest doing the 5-times sit-to-stand test together. Struggling is a sign of frailty, another heart disease red flag. 

Puffy weight gain

Many of us have gained weight throughout the COVID quarantine, but it’s important to note the difference between fat and fluid. People suffering from heart failure often hold fluid in their stomach or even in the back, so if you see this type of localized weight gain and your loved one says they had to loosen the notch on their belt, it’s time to call the doctor for a heart checkup.

The lipstick test

We all know kids say the darndest things, but if you go to grandma’s house and they point out changes in her appearance, it’s time to listen up. I suggest the lipstick test. It’s a good sign if your grandma still makes sure to put on her lipstick. Is your father/grandfather still shaving and showering? Do their clothes look rumpled? Is there a mail pile-up? Did they not put up the usual holiday decorations? While we might think this is simply aging, it shouldn’t be. We don’t see these red flags with people aging and enjoying life.

Cold hands, discolored nails, swollen ankles, too many pillows

Take the hand of a loved one and note if it’s cold or not. Observe their nails. Discolored nails are another sign of heart issues. Swelling of the ankles or edema is a sign that mom or dad needs a heart check. Ask about their sleep. Is it disrupted frequently? Are they propping themselves up with pillows or sleeping in a recliner? Are they suffering from sleep apnea and waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air? A yes to these questions wins a check-in with the doctor.

About The Author
Bobbi Bogaev, M.D

Bobbi Bogaev, M.D., is the medical director, heart failure, at Abiomed, the maker of Impella. Impella is the only U.S. FDA-approved percutaneous heart pump technology indicated for patients with severe coronary artery disease requiring high-risk PCI. Prior to Abiomed, Dr. Bogaev was a practicing cardiologist and the chief of cardiology at Bon Secours Health System in Richmond, VA, director of Texas Heart Institute’s Advanced Heart Failure Outreach Program, and medical director of Texas Heart Institute’s Heart Transplant Program. She received her Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from the University of Virginia and holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.