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Heart disease symptoms and prevention tips

Dr. John Pensock, right, performs a heart catheterization at the Uniontown Hospital Cath Lab.

By Olivia Goudy


Heart disease is a blanket term for a wide array of heart problems, the most well­known being heart failure or coronary disease. With February being nationally known as Heart Health Month, a local cardiologist is reminding local residents of steps that can be taken to prevent the ailments, and how to recognize them.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of people in the country,” said Dr. John Pensock, an interventional cardiologist with Uniontown Hospital.

Early signs to be aware of are short-­term changes in one’s abilities to perform activities of daily living, including work, exercise and doing household chores.

“Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, chest pressure, sweating and fatigue may potentially be indicative to a possible cardiac problem,” Pensock said. “One of the dangerous misconceptions people might have is underestimating the lifestyle changes and writing it off as nothing, or something else,” he added. “It very well could be heart­related.”

Pensock noted that cardiac ailments and irregular heart rhythms are the largest reasons for hospital admissions.

In order to prevent heart disease, one of the earliest, and easiest, steps one can take is to become aware of the disease.

“Be aware of your medical history and classic risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol and your weight,” Pensock said. He added that exercise is another significant thing people can do on a regular basis that, over time, will contribute to lowering the risk of developing heart problems.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, some conditions and lifestyle choices that increase a person’s chance for heart disease including diabetes, being overweight or obese, maintaining a poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.

Prevention doesn’t come easy, Pensock said.

“The most difficult thing to do is change. We’re creatures of habit and develop patterns throughout our lives that are difficult to change or disrupt,” he added.

Smoking, for instance, is an easy habit to have in one’s crosshairs to stop.

“We hear it and know it, but it’s a difficult thing to change for a variety of reasons,” he said.

In terms of heredity, Pensock said it’s not a guarantee that just because parents and grandparents had heart problems, so will future generations.

“But in any family, if there’s early onset coronary disease, it’s a possibility,” he said. “When they approach those years in which their older relatives had heart problems, they should be more aware and call a physician if their activity level changes.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

“While some women have no symptoms of heart disease, others may experience heavy sharp chest pain or discomfort, pain in the neck/jaw/throat, or pain in the upper abdomen or back,” according to the CDC. “Sometimes heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman has signs or symptoms including a heart attack, arrhythmia, heart failure or a stroke.”

On a similar note, Pensock said it’s more prevalent in women because of the atypical presentation.

“Symptoms, for a large portion of the female population, are not classic,” Pensock said. “They’ll come in with chest discomfort that’s been going on for a while, not thinking it’s heart related.” “But it turns out, they’ve had a small attack,” he added.

“They’ll tell me they didn’t have chest pains, or weren’t sweating.”

Pensock said a common misconception is that symptoms have to include sharp chest pains, similar to those in advertisements with the subject dramatically clutching their chest in agonizing pain. “But there can be soft symptoms.That’s why they might be behind the eight ball in terms of getting diagnosed,” he said.