Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, is a condition where your heart can no longer pump enough blood for your body. It often occurs along with other life-threatening complications.
“Many patients hear ‘heart failure’ and immediately think ‘heart transplant’ or ‘death,'” Sara Tabtabai, MD, co-director of the University of Connecticut Heart Failure Center, told Health. However, many people live for years with heart failure. “I try to reassure them that for most patients there are many options before we get anywhere near that: Our focus is to decrease or eliminate symptoms and improve heart function as best we can.
Heart failure doesn’t mean the heart stops pumping entirely. Rather, there are two types of heart failure—left-sided heart failure is when the left side of the heart works harder to pump the same amount of blood while right-sided heart failure usually occurs as a result of left-sided heart failure due to increased fluid pressure in the left side.
Heart failure can be caused by other conditions such as:
- Arrhythmia (a problem with your heartbeat)
- Congenital heart defects
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure
Heart failure typically develops slowly as other conditions progress, but it can also occur suddenly. You can live with heart failure, but it may cause problems with your body and other organs.
Symptoms can vary depending on whether you have right- or left-sided heart failure and how serious your condition is. But some symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or weakness
- Swelling in your ankles, lower legs, or abdomen
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
“People can feel really fatigued, or experience a decrease in their ability to exercise or do daily activities,” said Dr. Tabtabai. “Shortness of breath is very common, and so is swelling of the legs or ankles.” When swelling occurs—due to blood not circulating properly and fluid accumulating in the lower extremities—the condition can be called congestive heart failure.
There is no cure for heart failure, and it will quickly get worse if left untreated. But the good news is that medications and lifestyle changes can help keep the condition under control.
There are plenty of medications that can be prescribed for heart failure. By working with a healthcare provider, you can figure out which medications are right for you depending on what type of heart failure you have, how severe it is, and whether you have any other conditions as well.
Here are some medications that can help to improve the heart’s function:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers (or inhibitors)
- Angiotensin-receptor neprilysin inhibitors (ARNIs)
- Beta blockers
- Aldosterone antagonists
“It’s difficult to predict how patients will do, and it’s not really based on the percentage their pumping function is reduced,” said Dr. Tabtabai. “Some people have very low pumping function but they feel well, have minimal symptoms, and go on and live for a long time.”
It order to gain all of the benefits from the medication, it is important to take medications exactly as your healthcare provider prescribes.
Along with medications, making changes to your lifestyle can also help to treat heart failure by slowing the progression of disease, and improving your everyday life. Here are a few lifestyle changes you can make that can help to ease symptoms of heart failure:
- Reduce sodium in your diet
- Quit smoking
- Manage your stress
- Be physically active
- Treat other conditions you may have that contribute to heart failure
According to Dr. Tabtabai, regular exercise and following a healthy diet early in life can help prevent heart disease—and related heart failure—later in life. It can also help people who do develop heart failure live longer and healthier. Managing blood pressure is also important, Dr. Tabtabai added.
“In my practice, I try to identify people who are at risk of developing heart failure and heart disease and try to highlight that these sorts of lifestyle measures are really very beneficial,” Dr. Tabtabai said. “If they can get in a good routine early in life, that’s our best defense against developing these conditions down the line.”
In one study, exercise not only reduced the risk of developing heart failure but also reduced the chances of hospitalization or death for people with heart failure. Talk to your healthcare provider about gradually increasing your exercise routine at a pace that’s safe and manageable.
In advanced cases of heart failure, patients are sometimes treated with surgical procedures, including heart transplants or the implantation of a defibrillator or an artificial pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD).
These options can be stressful for both patients and their caregivers, but they can also provide significant improvements in quality of life.
Heart failure can be a difficult condition to manage but with medication, lifestyle changes, and maybe even surgery, you can live a healthy life.
If you notice symptoms of heart failure—like shortness of breath, fatigue, or nausea—talk to a healthcare provider so they can figure out what is causing your symptoms and figure out a treatment plan that is right for you.