What is heart failure?

Your heart is a muscle—its main function is to pump blood throughout the body. Heart failure means that your heart is not pumping blood adequately. Either your heart muscle is weak and cannot pump out adequate amounts of blood or your heart is stiff and not able to fill with enough blood.

In terms of symptoms, most people notice fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling, rapid weight gain and coughing.

What tests diagnose failure?

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. It measures the strength of the heart beats to evaluate if the heart is adequately relaxed in between beats. This is the standard test for determining heart failure.

If you have been diagnosed with heart failure and your ejection fraction (amount of fluid ejected from a chamber in each contraction) is less than 55%, your heart muscle is weakened; if it is 55% or greater, your heart is stiff.

You can also have a brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) test. BNP is a protein that is created by your heart and blood vessels. If you have heart failure, your BNP levels are higher than normal.

A BNP test is a blood test that measures the level of a protein called BPN, created by your heart and blood vessels. BNP levels are higher than normal if you have heart failure.

Heart failure risk factors

There are some cases of heart failure where doctors are unable to determine the cause. However, the most common risk factors for developing heart failure include:

  • High blood pressure
  • History of heart attack
  • History of blocked heart arteries
  • Disease of heart valves
  • Viral infections of the heart
  • Excess alcohol intake
  • Certain chemotherapy agents
  • Birth defects
  • Heart rhythm disturbances

Heart failure treatment

There are several medications that are proven to improve quality of life, slow the progression of the disease and help you live longer. These medicines block certain chemicals that the body produces as a result of lower blood flow.

Beta blockers and ACE inhibitors are the two types of medication most prescribed. They help the heart relax and beat stronger while lowering the blood pressure, so the heart does not have to beat against high pressures. Sometimes people feel a lot better on their medications and stop taking them because they think they no longer need it. Remember, the medication does not cure the disease, but manages it. If medication is stopped without a doctor’s recommendation, heart failure can worsen.

Staying on your medication and keeping doctor’s appointments are crucial in maintaining good heart health. Notify your doctor if you experience rapid weight gain, swelling or increased shortness of breath. Cutting down on the amount of sodium in your diet is just as important. In most cases, it is recommended you have no more than 2000 mg of sodium in a day. Dieticians are available to help you learn how to reduce your salt intake.

If heart failure is caused by malfunctioning heart valves, surgery may be recommended to repair or replace the valve. If there are blockages in your arteries, you may experience improvement by restoring circulation to the heart muscle. This can be accomplished with either stents in the heart arteries or by undergoing bypass surgery.

If you smoke, ask your doctor how you can quit. If you drink more than one alcoholic beverage in a day, cut back to one a day or stop altogether.

Remember, heart failure does not mean your heart has stopped beating, but that your heart is not pumping as well as it should. It is important you and your doctor work together to manage your symptoms so you feel better and prevent the heart from further weakening.