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10 Things to Know About Heart Failure

In the United States, about 6.2 million adults have been diagnosed with heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heart failure is a chronic condition, and learning how to live with it, or care for someone with it, can be a challenging adjustment.

Here are 10 things to know about heart failure that will help you understand your condition so you can manage your symptoms and lead a full life.

1. Heart failure doesn’t mean heart stoppage

A heart failure diagnosis is alarming, but it doesn’t mean your heart has totally stopped working. It means the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently has been compromised, which can lead to other parts of the body not getting enough oxygen.

“The first thing I say to patients with this diagnosis is that it has a horrible name,” says Kevin Shah, MD, a cardiologist at University of Utah Health. “It’s a scary name for a condition, generally speaking, in which the heart is not getting enough blood to the body. But I remind them that there are lots of treatments and medications available to help restore that heart function.”

2. There are different types of heart failure

Knowing what kind of heart failure you have and discussing it with your doctor can help you know the best course of treatment and management.

Common types of heart failure include:

  • Heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, or systolic heart failure: The heart muscle is weak and enlarged and its pumping function is impaired. This is a type of left-sided failure.
  • Heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, or diastolic heart failure: The heart muscle is stiff and can’t relax normally between beats. This is a type of left-sided failure.
  • Right-sided heart failure: The right ventricle of the heart is too weak to effectively pump blood. This is usually a result of left-sided failure.

3. Knowing the symptoms is important

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heart failure is crucial for early intervention.

Common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath, especially when lying down
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, lower legs, or abdomen (edema)
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Appetite loss or nausea
  • Weight changes

“Knowing your current physical abilities and seeing a significant change in them can be concerning,” Shah says. “If someone used to be able to walk around the block without getting winded, but now they go halfway and need to take a break, that can be a clue that there’s a risk factor or potentially heart failure.”

4. Causes of heart failure vary

A wide range of factors can lead to developing heart failure, including risks like smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity, and some types of cancer treatments. Other comorbidities include:

5. There is no cure, but there are treatments

Heart failure is a chronic condition, but you can take medications to manage your symptoms, improve heart function, and reduce the risk of complications. These medications include diuretics, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and drugs that help lower cholesterol. In severe cases, pacemakers, ICDs, or a heart transplant may be needed.

6. Lifestyle changes are crucial

Adopting heart-healthy lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms and improve your quality of life. Eat a diet low in sodium and saturated fats. Avoid tobacco, drugs, and excessive alcohol. Staying physically active in a way that’s safe for you is also important.

“Some people get concerned that they shouldn’t exercise anymore because their heart’s not pumping as much blood, but we actually want people to stay as physically active as possible. Working with your provider or a cardiac rehabilitation program to develop an exercise plan that you feel comfortable and safe with is a really important part.”
Kevin Shah, MD

7. You’ll need to follow a low-sodium diet

Carefully following a low-sodium diet is very important for your heart health. Ditch your salt shaker and find low-sodium recipes so you can learn how to season your food without salt. Read all food labels and know how to identify high-sodium ingredients. Your doctor may give you a sodium goal to meet each day, so keep a log of what you eat to make sure you don’t go over your daily limit.

8. You may need to limit fluid intake

Some heart failure patients need to restrict the amount of liquids they consume to prevent fluid build-up. Your doctor may not recommend this for every patient, so be sure to adhere to your specific management plan from your health care team.

9. Heart failure can affect anyone

While people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop heart failure, it can affect young, healthy people as well. Some people may also be born with heart disease. Additionally, viral illnesses that weaken the heart can lead to heart failure. There’s also a rare condition called postpartum cardiomyopathy, where heart failure develops during the last month of pregnancy or shortly postpartum.

10. There is hope

A heart failure diagnosis may seem like a death sentence, but it is absolutely possible to live a fulfilling life with this condition. Following your doctor’s advice for treatment and appropriately managing your symptoms will put you on the right track to living well with your diagnosis.

“For the majority of patients, this is a chronic condition that can be managed,” Shah says. “Heart function can be restored with the right interventions, and the key is partnering with a great team that’s supporting you throughout the process.”