In the Western world, where one in four people die from heart disease, we can’t overestimate the importance of keeping our heart functioning well and in good condition. Unfortunately, many people don’t start to worry until they have a heart attack.
Although we cannot look directly at our hearts, there are however a few visible external signs that should give you an indication of how it is functioning. Adam Taylor, the director of the clinical anatomy learning centre and lecturer in the University of Lancaster, provides us with a few signs we should be aware of.
1. A deep and permanent wrinkle in the ear lobe
We call this Frank’s sign, called after Sanders Frank, an American doctor who first described the phenomenon. Studies have shown that there is a link between this visible crease on the ear lobe and an increased risk of atherosclerosis (when plaque builds up and blocks the arteries). The cause is not fully clear, but some people suggest a common embryological origin.
Another possible external indicator of cardiac problems is the appearance of small nodules made up of yellow fat -clinically referred to as “xanthomas” -which can appear on the elbows, knees, buttocks or eyelids. The patches in themselves are harmless, but they can be a sign of more serious problems.
Xanthomas are most often seen in people affected by a genetic disease called familial hypercholesterolemia, who present with exceptionally high levels of low-density-protein (LDL) cholesterol -which we call “bad cholesterol”. The cholesterol levels are so high that they show up on the skin. Unfortunately, these fatty deposits also build up on the arteries that bring blood to the heart.
3. Club nails
Fingertips and nails which become disproportionately swollen can also be a sign that your heart is in difficulty. The nails change shape, become thicker and larger, because of the production of extra tissue. The change is generally painless and occurs on the hands. And the reason? Oxygenated blood cannot effectively reach the fingers, and thus the cells produce extra tissue in order to try and rectify the problem.
This condition is one of the oldest known medical signs. It was described by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. This is why clubbed fingers are often called “Hippocratic fingers”.
4. A halo around the iris
Fatty deposits can also be seen in the eyes. You will see a grey ring appearing around the outside of the iris, the coloured part of the eye. This “arcus senilis” takes shape around the poles of the iris (at the top and bottom), before progressing to form a full ring. This does not interfere with your vision. Around 45% of people over the age of 40 have this grey halo around their irises (and 70% of people over 60). It has been shown that the presence of this ring is associated with certain risk factors for coronary heart disease.
5. Blue lips
Lips are typically red in colour, but they can take on a bluish hue (cyan) in people with heart problems, due to an inability of the cardiovascular system to bring oxygenated blood to the body’s tissues.
It should be noted that the 5 signs listed above can also have benign causes. In the case of any doubt, consult your GP.