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What Everyone Needs to Know About Heart Failure

July 2005
What Everyone Needs to Know About Heart Failure

Many people hear the words "heart failure" and imagine an emergency situation that strikes without warning. But the truth is people with heart failure can lead relatively normal lives.

Heart failure is not a heart attack

Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped or is about to stop. It simply means that the heart is not pumping blood through the body as well as it should. When this happens the blood backs up in the blood vessels around the lungs and can cause seepage of fluid into the lungs. This fluid causes congestion and makes it hard to breathe. Fluid can also back up in the legs and feet causing swelling.

What causes heart failure? Some of the most common causes of heart failure are heart attack, history of hypertension (high blood pressure), an infection that attacks the heart muscle, and genetic abnormality.

How common is heart failure? Heart failure is a serious condition that affects nearly 5 million Americans, with 550,000 new cases of heart failure being diagnosed each year in the United States. Heart failure is the only cardiovascular disease on the rise and is the most frequent cause of hospitalization in patients over 65 years of age. Although heart failure is most prevalent in individuals 65 or older, it is not limited to this age group. It does not discriminate between men and women, and affects all ethnic groups.

What are the risk factors? Risk factors for heart failure include smoking, being overweight, high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, problems with heart valves and family history. Sometimes the cause of heart failure is not known. Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time can also be a risk factor.

What are the symptoms? The most common symptoms of heart failure include: breathing difficulties (shortness of breath when walking stairs or simple activities; trouble breathing when resting or lying down; waking up breathless at night which is sometimes alleviated by sleeping on 2 to 3 pillows) feeling tired easily; and swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs.

If you suspect you are experiencing symptoms of heart failure make an appointment to see your health care provider. Seeking advice from a health care provider is important because symptoms of heart failure are often mistaken as signs of aging or other conditions.

Heart failure can be treated. Once heart failure develops, seeking medical help early may help prevent the syndrome from progressing. Starting treatment in the early stage of heart failure is important. Today there are a number of different medicines (ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, Digoxin, Diuretics, ARBs, aldosterone antagonists) that have proven effective in relieving symptoms, improving quality of life and prolonging survival. In many cases it is possible to stop or even reverse the progression of disease. There are also devices, such as defibrillators and special kinds of pacemakers, which help improve heart function and are available for use in conjunction with medical therapy. However the key is early diagnosis and treatment.

With new treatments the outlook for heart failure patients has improved considerably from the past. Many patients have resumed their normal activities, sometimes with little or no limitation. A satisfying quality of life is now much more obtainable than it was just ten years ago. Along with the improvement in quality of life, patients with heart failure are living much longer than they have in the past.

The Heart Failure Society of America provides easy to read and understand information for patients, their families and individuals at risk. Visit for information. The modules discuss low salt diets, medications, self-care, exercise and activity, managing feelings about heart failure, tips for family and friends, lifestyle changes and heart rhythm problems.

Source: ARA Content

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