Heart failure is most common in people over 65, but it can occur at any age due to smoking, high blood pressure or other factors.
It’s also often misunderstood: the diagnosis doesn’t mean your heart stops, but that it isn’t pumping enough blood and oxygen to meet your body’s needs.
It can make day-to-day activities like climbing stairs, or even walking, difficult.
What are the signs of heart failure? There are five:
- Shortness of breath
- Increased swelling in your feet, ankles, legs or abdomen
- A fast or irregular heart beat
- More fatigue than usual
- A weight gain of two to three pounds in one day or four to five pounds in one week
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5.7 million adults in the United States live with heart failure. About half of those diagnosed die within 5 years.
“Heart failure is the main reason patients are readmitted to hospitals,” said Stephen G. Phillips, M.D., director of Carilion’s Heart Failure Clinic in Roanoke. “The average heart failure patient is hospitalized once or twice a year.”
Your Heart Is a Muscle
We often forget that our heart is a muscle, and that it needs to be exercised. Without enough exercise, or with age, it can weaken or fail.
Other factors that can increase your odds of developing heart failure are:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- Complications due to diabetes
- Radiation or chemotherapy treatments
- Heavy drinking
- Sleep apnea left untreated
- Genetic conditions
A stressful event or a serious illness can also sometimes lead to stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The condition can damage the heart, but people can often recover from it.
Improving Your Health
The hopeful news is that medications can help a heart failure patient. So can lifestyle changes.
Yes, exercise is often recommended even to those with heart failure—along with a healthy low-salt and low-fat diet.
Monitoring the condition is also important, because gaining even two pounds may indicate that fluids are building up.
Patients used to have to see their doctor regularly for monitoring, but in the past few years, remote monitoring from home has become more common.
Today, doctors can implant a tiny wireless sensor in a patient’s pulmonary artery and have their vital signs transmitted to the doctor’s office.
“Remote monitoring means we don’t need to see patients as often, which saves them time and money,” said Dr. Phillips.
Patients with severe heart failure now also have another option: a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). Heart surgeons can implant this device, which will circulate blood throughout the body when a patient’s heart cannot.
Surgeons implant LVADs in both patients who are waiting for a heart transplant and those who aren’t good candidates for a transplant.
Knowing Your Options
Keeping your heart strong is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
But even if you’ve been diagnosed with heart failure, you can still often make improvements in your life.
If you’ve been wondering if those signs of tiredness could be related to your heart slowing down, you might want to consider a few lifestyle changes—or get your heart checked out.
You’ll be happy you treated it right.
Heart health is about more than food and exercise.