Heart failure is a medical condition that occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. It does not mean that the heart has completely stopped. Instead, this condition can cause a range of complications, including the backup of blood and fluid into the lungs and the rest of the body.
This condition can be life threatening, especially if left untreated. Early detection and management is important, especially at the pre heart-failure stage where the patient is experiencing symptoms but not complete heart failure yet.
Types of heart failure include:
- Systolic heart failure: This condition occurs when the heart’s left ventricle loses its ability to properly contract, reducing the amount of blood pumped out with each heartbeat. Systolic heart failure is often associated with a weakened heart muscle due to conditions such as coronary artery disease, heart attack or dilated cardiomyopathy.
- Diastolic heart failure: When the left ventricle fails to relax normally and becomes stiff, diastolic heart failure occurs. This means that a smaller amount of blood is pumped out during each contraction and your body may not get the amount of blood it needs to function properly.
- Chronic heart failure: A long term condition where the heart’s pumping function gradually weakens over time, leading to reduced blood circulation through the body.
Millions of people in the United States experience heart failure and this number is growing. Certain populations are at higher risk for this disease than the general population. These include:
- Those over 65
- African Americans
- People who are overweight
- Those who have had a heart attack
Men are generally at a higher risk of heart failure than women, but the risk for women increases after menopause. Additionally, children with congenital heart disease can be at risk of developing heart failure.
Coronary heart disease, which involves narrowing or blockage of coronary arteries, can lead to heart failure if it impairs blood flow to the heart muscle. Heart failure can also be caused or worsened by heart valve problems or fluid buildup in the pulmonary artery.
It’s important to note that having one or more risk factors does not guarantee that you will experience heart failure. However, these risk factors increase the likelihood of the condition occurring.
Symptoms of Heart Failure
Recognizing the symptoms of heart failure is essential for early detection and prompt intervention. People with heart failure may experience the following symptoms:
- Chest pain: This symptom occurs particularly during physical activity or when the heart is struggling to meet the body’s oxygen demands.
- Persistent cough or wheezing: Congestion in the lungs can lead to a chronic cough or wheezing. The cough may indicate the presence of fluid in the lungs.
- Shortness of breath: This may occur both during physical activity and at rest, as fluid buildup in the lungs interferes with normal respiration. People with heart failure may find it difficult to breathe while lying flat and may wake up at night with sudden episodes of shortness of breath.
- Persistent fatigue and weakness: As the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively decreases, the body may not get enough oxygen and nutrients to meet its demands. This can significantly impact daily activity and quality of life.
- Swelling: This can occur in the ankles, feet, and legs because of water retention and excess fluid in the body’s tissues.
- Irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia: This occurs when the heart beats too slow or too fast.
Detection and Diagnosis
Heart failure can have underlying causes, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. To diagnose heart failure, doctors utilize a range of tests, such as:
- Electrocardiography, a noninvasive test that records the heart’s electrical activity, helping to find irregular heart rhythms and other abnormalities
- Nuclear stress test, a specialized imaging test to assess blood flow to the heart during stress or exercise, revealing potential issues with the heart muscle
- Echocardiography, a noninvasive ultrasound exam which produces detailed images of the heart’s structure and function
Heart Failure Treatment
Early diagnosis and treatment of heart failure can be most effective in helping patients live longer, healthier lives. Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your heart failure and can include:
- Heart-healthy lifestyle adjustments: Consuming a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity and avoiding smoking can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of complications.
- Medications: You may be prescribed medication to manage heart failure. This can include beta-blockers to control high blood pressure and heart rate or diuretics to reduce fluid buildup.
- Cardiac resynchronization therapy: This treatment option involves placing specialized devices in the heart to help synchronize its rhythm and make sure the heart pumps efficiently.
- Heart transplantation: In severe cases of advanced heart failure, a heart transplant may be considered as a live-saving option.