Are You at Risk for Heart Failure?

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on January 31, 2018

If there’s one thing you can do for your health, it’s take care of your heart.

But most of us forget that our heart is a muscle, and that it can weaken, or fail.

Sadly, about 5.7 million adults in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of those diagnosed die within 5 years.

What is heart failure?

It doesn’t mean that your heart stops, but that it can’t pump enough blood through your body to meet its needs. It often makes ordinary activities like walking or climbing stairs difficult.

“We are seeing more cases of heart failure,” said Christina Dunbar-Matos, D.O., a cardiologist with Carilion Clinic. “It’s not clear if the actual number of cases is growing, or if we’re doing a better job of diagnosis.”

The three most common symptoms are shortness of breath, fatigue and retaining fluid (your feet and legs swell).

Heart failure is seen most often in people over 65, but it can occur at any age due to:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Radiation or chemotherapy treatments
  • Complications due to diabetes
  • Genetic conditions
  • Heavy drinking
  • Smoking
  • Sleep apnea left untreated

“We also sometimes see stress induced cardiomyopathy caused by a serious illness or a stressful event,” said Dr. Dunbar-Matos. “It can damage the heart, but people can often come back from it.”

If there is any good news, it’s that we do have medications that help improve the heart muscle. Lifestyle changes can also help you get back to living your life.

“Exercise is excellent for your heart in general, and we recommend it even to people with heart failure,” Dr. Dunbar-Matos said. “We also advise eating right, including a low-fat, low-salt diet.”

“Unfortunately, some heart failure patients—often younger people—don’t follow up with treatments that could help them,” she added. “Follow-up monitoring and treatment is important, since even gaining a couple of pounds could indicate that fluids are building up again in the body.”

She noted that increasingly, doctors are able to stay in touch with patients at home, making monitoring easier.

It’s good to know that even if you or someone you love is diagnosed with heart failure, you can take steps to improve your life.

Learn more about heart disease in women.