In the Western world, where one in four people succumb to cardiovascular disease, the importance of keeping the heart in good working order is hard to overemphasize. Unfortunately, the first sign that many people have that their heart isn’t working as it should is when they have a heart attack.
Although you cannot see your heart beating in your chest – not without specialist equipment at least - there are visible, external signs that can indicate if something is wrong with your heart, before you suffer from a life-changing or life-ending cardiovascular event.
One external indicator of heart problems are yellow, fatty bumps – known clinically as xanthomas – that can appear on the knees, elbows, eyelids, or buttocks. The bumps themselves are harmless. But they are a sign of bigger problems.
Xanthomas are often found in people with a genetic disease knows as familial hypercholesterolemia. Those who suffer from this condition have high levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol – so-called “bad cholesterol.” The levels of this cholesterol are so high that they become deposited in the skin. Unfortunately, these fat deposits are also laid down in the arteries that supply the heart.
Another external indicator is the presence of diagonal creases on the earlobes – known as Frank’s sign, named after Sanders Frank, the American doctor who first described the sign.
Studies have proven that there is an association with the visible external crease on the earlobe and increased risk of atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up inside the arteries. It’s not clear what the cause of the association is, but some have postulated that it has something to do with the shared embryological origin. Most recently, it has been seen that these creases are also implicated in cerebrovascular disease – disease of the blood vessels in the brain.
Halo around the Iris
Fat deposits might also be seen in the eye, as a gray ring around the outside of the iris, the colored part of the eye. This ring, known as an arcus senilis, starts at the top and bottom of the iris before progressing to form a complete ring. It doesn’t interfere with vision.
Around 45% of people over the age of 40 have this fatty halo around their iris, rising to around 70% of people over the age of 60. The presence of this ring of fat has been proven to be associated with some of the risk factors for coronary heart disease.
A phenomenon by the name of digital clubbing might also be a sign that all is not well with your heart. This is where the fingernails change shape, becoming thicker and wider, due to an increased production of tissue. The change is usually painless and occurs on both hands.
The reason this change indicates heart issues is because oxygenated blood is not reaching the fingers properly and so the cells produce a factor to try to rectify the issue.
Rotten Gums and Loose Teeth
Your oral health can also be a great predictor of the state of your cardiovascular health. Your mouth is full of bacteria, both good and bad. The “bad” bacteria can enter the bloodstream from the mouth and cause inflammation in the blood vessels, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Studies have shown that inflamed gums and tooth loss are markers of heart disease.
Another heart health indicator is the color of your lips. The lips are usually red, but they can take on a bluish color in people with underlying heart issues, due to the failure of the cardiovascular system to deliver oxygenated blood to tissues.
Of course, people can get blue lips if they’re extremely cold or have been at a high altitude. If this is the case, blue lips are probably just due to a temporary lack of oxygen and will resolve quite quickly.
The other five symptoms above can also have benign causes, so if you’re worried or in doubt, you should contact your doctor or another healthcare professional for an expert opinion.