The heart, so integral to life, sits in its protective cage in the chest, going about its work without any external sign to the owner.
In the West, where one in four people die of cardiovascular disease, the importance of keeping the heart in good working order is hard to overstate. Sadly, the first sign many people have that their heart isn’t in good working order is when they have a heart attack.
Although you can’t see your heart beating in your chest — not without specialist imaging technology, 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 ending — “cardiovascular event”.
1. Creased earlobes
One such external indicator is diagonal creases on the earlobes — known as Frank’s sign, named after Sanders Frank, an American doctor who first described the sign. Studies have shown 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 your arteries.
2. Fatty bumps
Another external indicator of heart issues is yellow, fatty bumps — known clinically as “xanthomas” — that can appear on the elbows, knees, buttocks or eyelids. The bumps themselves are harmless, but they can be a sign of bigger problems.
3. Clubbed fingernails
A phenomenon known as digital clubbing may 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 more tissue being produced. The change is usually painless and happens 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” that promotes growth to try and rectify the issue.
4. Halo around the iris
Fat deposits may also be seen in the eye, as a grey ring around the outside of the iris, the coloured part of the eye. This so-called “arcus senilis”, starts at the top and bottom of the iris before progressing to form a complete ring. It doesn’t interfere with vision.
5. Rotten gums and loose teeth
The state of your oral health can also be a good predictor of the state of your cardiovascular health. The 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.
6. Blue lips
Another health indicator from the mouth is the colour of your lips. The lips are usually red, but they can take on a bluish colour (cyanosis) in people with heart problems, due to the failure of the cardiovascular system to deliver oxygenated blood to tissues.
Of course, people also get blue lips if they are extremely cold or have been at a high altitude. In this case, blue lips are probably just due to a temporary lack of oxygen and will resolve quite quickly.