Heart failure is a serious health condition that affects about 5.7 million Americans and is a contributing cause to approximately one in every nine deaths annually. Contrary to what the name may suggest, “heart failure” does not mean that the heart has stopped working. In reality, heart failure occurs when the muscles of the heart weaken and become unable to pump blood through the body effectively. When the heart is unable to keep up with its workload, the cells in the body may not get enough oxygen, which affects how the body is able to function overall.
While there is no cure for heart failure, many people are able to lead happy, full lives by managing the condition well. Learning more about how to prevent, recognize and treat heart failure are all important aspects of proper management.
Heart Failure Risk Factors
Heart failure doesn’t typically sneak up on people – it develops over time and involves a number of different risk factors. The risk factors associated with heart failure are generally conditions that make it harder for the heart to do its job. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- Past heart attack
- Being too overweight
Certain lifestyle behaviors like drinking too much alcohol, smoking and taking illegal drugs can also affect how the heart functions.
Other risk factors for heart failure are not within your control. These include:
- Race. People of African American descent are more likely to have heart failure
- Birth defects. Being born with defects of the heart can affect your chances of developing heart failure in the future.
- Age. If you’re 65 years or older, the odds of developing heart failure increase.
Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure
For some people, heart failure is chronic, which means that signs and symptoms are persistent and last a long time. Others experience acute heart failure, which refers to sudden onset of symptoms.
Generally, the signs and symptoms of heart failure include any combination of the following:
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea) when you exert yourself or when you lie down
- Fatigue and weakness
- Swelling (edema) in your legs, ankles and feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm
- Increased need to urinate at night
- Swelling of your abdomen (ascites)
- Very rapid weight gain from fluid retention
- Lack of appetite and nausea
- Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
- Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus
- Chest pain if your heart failure is caused by a heart attack
You should seek emergency treatment if any signs or symptoms are severe, as they may also be indicative of another, more urgent life threatening heart or lung condition like heart attack.
Heart Failure Prevention
The sooner you begin to take steps to prevent heart failure, the more likely you are to successfully stave off onset. You can start with just a few simple steps, including:
- Stick to a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins
- Limit the amount of bad fats you eat, such as sugars, salt and alcohol
- Avoid smoking or doing recreational drugs
- Keep your stress levels to a minimum
- Get enough sleep at night
Treating Heart Failure
If you suspect that you have heart failure, it is important to talk to your doctor about your condition. There are medications that can be used to help treat heart failure. Medication classes typically used to treat heart failure include:
- Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors
- Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (or Inhibitors)
- Angiotensin-Receptor Neprilysin Inhibitors (ARNIs)
- Beta blockers
- Aldosterone Antagonists
- Diuretics (also known as water pills)
In other cases, your doctor may prescribe certain other medications to help manage certain aspects of heart failure
Anticoagulants (blood thinners). These medications can be prescribed for heart failure patients who are also dealing with atrial fibrillation. They are not used unless atrial fibrillation is also present.
Statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs). If you have high cholesterol or have had a heart attack in the past, statins may be used to manage those aspects of your condition.
Digoxin. Doctors can prescribe digoxin to help make the heart beat stronger and maintain a more regular rhythm. It can also be used to treat atrial fibrillation.