It’s never too early to measure your heart health, especially if you carry risk factors for heart conditions or are over the age of 40 (yes, 40).¹
Symptoms of cardiac stress aren’t always obvious. Some, like unhealthy cholesterol levels, are silent. Testing at home is an easy way to understand your baseline cardiovascular health, which may inspire lifestyle changes or further tests from your doctor.
A first heart attack is debilitating for most people, and can also be fatal. Lowering your risk — and early! — is your best defense against cardiovascular disease.
Who is at risk of heart disease?
- Age: The risk of heart attack is greatest in adults 65 and over; older women are more likely to die of a heart attack than men.
- Gender: Men are at higher risk than women of developing cardiovascular disease, and at a younger age. (More research is needed on cardiovascular health among transgender people.)³
- Heredity: Family history comes with increased risk; children of parents with heart disease are likelier to develop the disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are hereditary factors that contribute to risk.⁴
- Low income: Poverty and stress contribute to heart disease,⁵ while limited access to care and differential treatment within healthcare settings are systemic issues that may also increase risk.⁶
Risk factors for heart disease that are within your control include:
- Smoking: Quit as soon as possible. Tobacco use damages and narrows blood vessels, reducing blood flow. Second-hand smoke even increases the risk of heart disease for nonsmokers.⁷
- Diet: Eating more fruits and vegetables, and fewer foods with high salt, sugar and fat content, has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease.⁸
- Exercise: Not only does regular exercise strengthen the heart, it can also lower other risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.⁹
- Sleep: Poor sleep can contribute to risk factors of obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure. Sleep apnea, which causes people to stop breathing for long periods at night, is another risk that can be treated.¹⁰
When should I be tested for heart problems?
Because one in every four American deaths is attributed to heart disease,¹¹ testing for heart problems can be done at any time, regardless of medical history. Routine blood pressure and body weight measurements at the doctor’s, for example, are part of ongoing cardiovascular screening.¹²
More serious symptoms that warrant further testing include:¹³
- Palpitations: Heart rates that are faster than normal, jumping around erratically, or causing a fluttery feeling in the chest.
- Chest pain: A classic heart attack symptom, any tightness or heaviness should be addressed immediately; chest pain that comes and goes with physical activity should also be investigated quickly.
- Shortness of breath: Being unable to catch your breath could be a symptom of heart failure, as can unexplained fatigue or inability to work out like you used to.
- Jaw or back pain: Evidence suggests women may not get chest pain symptoms, but instead a gnawing jaw or back pain that doesn’t go away.¹⁴
How can I be tested for heart problems?
Some tests for heart disease are considered invasive, as they require a catheter inserted into blood vessels to check blood flow and valve health. There are also many non-invasive tests, meaning a device is not inserted in the body. These may include scans or blood samples.¹⁵
Types of tests to detect heart problems
There are over a dozen common and non-invasive tests for heart disease. After a thorough physical examination, a doctor will review your medical history and then run any number of tests for cardiovascular conditions, from blood cholesterol to chest X-rays to ultrasounds.¹⁶
Here are a few of the most common:
The heart muscle is driven by electrical impulses, or waves, that travel through it. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) measures the electrical activity that passes through the heart so doctors can see if it’s normal or irregular. For this test, electrodes are painlessly attached to various parts of the body while you lie still. An ECG test takes about five to 10 minutes.¹⁷
Coronary calcium scan
In this test, which is also known as coronary artery calcium scoring, a computed tomography or CT machine scans the arteries of the heart for blockages. Specifically, the test looks for buildups of calcified plaque to generate a “calcium score”. Any number above zero means some blockage is present, while a score above 400 indicates strong evidence of blockage, also known as atherosclerosis, or coronary artery disease. A coronary calcium scan takes around 10 minutes.¹⁸
It’s normal to feel stressed out by the name of this test, but don’t worry — a cardiac stress test, also known as an echocardiogram, simply measures your heart’s response to exercise. Essentially, it’s an ECG that happens while you’re moving. First, a healthcare professional places electrodes on your chest and stomach, then they ask you to walk on a treadmill at an increasing pace, while the electrodes measure what’s happening in your heart. You’ll also have your blood pressure and heart rate measured at various points throughout the test. A stress test takes about an hour.¹⁹
An echocardiogram is a painless procedure that uses sound waves to show a picture of your heart’s internal structures — essentially it’s an ultrasound of the heart. Typically it’s performed at the same time as an ECG. During an echocardiogram, a technician uses a gel-covered transducer, sliding it across the chest area to get a picture of the heart below.²⁰ Depending on the number of images that are needed, an echocardiogram can take anywhere from 20 minutes to just under an hour.
In-person or at-home blood tests
Total cholesterol (TC)
High cholesterol is silent until it becomes full-fledged heart disease, which is why you should have your cholesterol levels checked regularly. A total cholesterol (TC) test involves a blood sample that checks the total amount of cholesterol based on triglyceride numbers, HDL and LDL levels.²¹
Triglycerides on their own aren’t necessarily a risk factor as they’re a type of fat in the blood used for energy. However, high triglyceride levels combined with low HDL or high LDL cholesterol is identified as a cardiovascular health risk.²²
High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
Because HDLs transport cholesterol from other parts of the body to be processed and removed by the liver, they’re considered “good” cholesterol.²³ Knowing you have high levels of HDL cholesterol might be a relief as it can help lower your risk of heart disease.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
Lipoprotein(a) is a particle within LDL. Having high amounts of lipoprotein(a) can lead to heart attacks and strokes in young people in the absence of other risk factors. A lipoprotein(a) test is usually used if a person or their first-degree relative develops a heart condition while they’re young and otherwise healthy, and have normal cholesterol levels.
Complete blood count (CBC)
A complete blood count measures a range of substances in the blood, including white blood cells, red blood cells, hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. Abnormal levels of these cells can be attributed to heart disease.²⁵
Are the results accurate?
imaware’s at-home medical tests are just as accurate as any lab test ordered by a doctor, and each of our reports is physician-approved.
Does the blood test hurt?
Our fingertip method is typically less painful than the standard needle collection at a lab, and is just as accurate. With our lancet, the needle stays hidden and may cause a quick pinch at first, but then collection is virtually painless. Only a few drops are needed, and then you’re done.
Diagnosing heart conditions
Only a doctor can give a heart attack diagnosis, which needs sophisticated tests in a hospital setting. Health professionals will also need to know if there is permanent damage to the heart.
What at-home tests can do is show increased levels of several cardiovascular biomarkers that point to an underlying condition. You can take this test to your doctor who may then assess you for more cardiac symptoms.
Catching cardiovascular disease early can help you begin a regimen of heart-healthy habits — like exercising and eating heart-healthy foods — before critical damage is done.
If you are found to have heart disease, a healthcare professional can help you reduce further damage and risk with lifestyle changes, medications and possible surgery.²⁶
Heart disease can start at any age, but is likelier after 40, in men and people with a family history of cardiovascular conditions, and in people living with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and poverty. Healthy lifestyle habits like diet and exercise can help prevent heart disease, while in-person and at-home tests can help you understand your risk level and motivate preventative measures.