Your heart is a pump. It moves blood and oxygen-rich nutrients through your body.
If you have heart failure, your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should. As a result, fluid can build up in the body – most often in the legs and lungs.
Your heart also isn’t able to push enough blood to meet your body’s needs for blood and oxygen. It’s no wonder then that if you have heart failure, you may tire more easily and feel short of breath.
About heart failure
With heart failure, the heart muscle is either:
-- too weak and cannot pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force (systolic failure)
-- has trouble relaxing and can’t fill with enough blood (diastolic failure)
If you or a loved one has heart failure, you’re not alone. Almost 6 million Americans have heart failure, and there are another 500,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It’s also the leading reason people 65 years of age and older end up in the hospital.
Heart failure is a serious, lifelong condition. But by managing heart failure, people can live normal lives. The hope is to try to avoid emergency or “acute” episodes when someone would need to be in the hospital, and generally improve patients’ quality of life and ability to do the things they usually do.
Who gets it
Some people are more likely to develop heart failure. For example, because the heart’s squeezing ability tends to grow weaker over time, heart failure is more common as we age. It is also common after a heart attack. But heart failure can affect people of all ages.
Other factors or conditions that can put you at risk include:
What does it feel like?
Many people who have heart failure will have:
Late in the disease, people may notice:
How it’s diagnosed
Heart failure is usually detected after a review of your full medical history, a physical exam and results from blood and/or cardiac imaging tests. Many patients first learn they have heart failure after going to the emergency room or hospital with symptoms, often shortness of breath with or without swelling.
Blood and/or imaging tests are used to assess any damage to your heart and to check how well it pumps blood. Your doctor may decide to order:
Many of these tests may be repeated over time to determine if your heart function is the same, better or worse with treatment.
Managing heart failure
Heart failure is a lifelong condition that needs to be managed. There are a number of treatment options, which will ultimately depend on:
Treatment generally includes a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, cardiac rehab, and procedures.
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Adopt healthier habits everyday
When you live with heart failure, you must take steps to make your health a priority. Simple lifestyle changes can help support you heart health. That means finding ways to:
Medications are an important part of treating heart failure. Your doctor may recommend one or a combination of the following:
Cardiac rehabilitation provides you with a supervised exercise program that’s geared toward your fitness level and health needs. It also provides a support system to help you adopt lifelong healthy behaviors and monitor your progress.
Cardiac rehab was recently approved for patients living with heart failure. Participating in this program can help you feel better, make your heart stronger and may reduce your need to go to the hospital.
Many people with heart failure also have a problem with the way their heart beats (arrhythmia). Many patients with a low ejection fraction—when the amount of blood the heart is able to squeeze out is much less than what it normally would be—may benefit from small electric devices implanted in the chest, just under the skin, with wires going to the heart. These devices can be useful to prevent sudden cardiac death or help the heart beat in a more coordinated manner in select patients.
Studies show that these devices can help improve quality of life and may prolong survival in properly selected patients.
For very late stages of the disease, a person may need a left ventricular assist device—a mechanical heart pump—to help the heart move blood through the body. This is often used in individuals who are awaiting a heart transplant.
Following your treatment plan is essential
Remember that managing heart failure means ongoing care and monitoring of your health. Be sure to keep any follow-up appointments and tests. Following a low-salt diet and taking your medications reliably is very important. It’s often helpful to keep a log with your daily weight, blood pressure and physical activity.
Today, there are many life-saving medications and therapies that help people live well with the disease.
Tips for living with heart failure
Talking to your care team
It is important to talk openly with your health care team about how you are feeling and share any concerns you have related to your condition or treatment. Heart failure can get worse over time, so keep your doctor up to speed on how you’re feeling, and if you have trouble doing certain activities.
Questions to ask:
To learn more about heart failure, click here.
In addition to the resources on CardioSmart.org, you can find out more by visiting:
American Heart Association
Heart Failure Society of America
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
Published: Oct. 2015
Medical Reviewer: David E. Lanfear, MD, MS, FACC, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, MI