Heart failure occurs when the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood throughout the body, leading to symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue. Here's what you need to know about the cardiovascular condition.
Heart attack, heart disease, cardiac arrest. Understanding the differences between cardiovascular conditions can get confusing. And what about heart failure, which affects approximately 5.7 million Americans?“Heart failure occurs when the muscles of the heart essentially die, or weaken,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, the director of women’s heart health at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a national spokesperson for the Go Red for Women campaign. “As heart function weakens, the blood doesn’t push forward through the body as easily.”
The result is a whole host of symptoms, from shortness of breath to swollen anklesto fatigue. Here, everything the experts want you to know about the condition, including symptoms, key risk factors, and lifestyle changes you can make right now to lower your chances of developing heart failure later on.
There’s more than one type of heart failure
Heart failure can affect the left ventricle, right ventricle, or both. The most common form is systolic heart failure, when the heart muscle’s function is diminished and, as a result, blood doesn’t flow as readily throughout the body. Another form of heart failure, called diastolic heart failure, occurs when the heart experiences relaxation impairment and is unable to fill with blood properly due to stiffening of the muscle. “Diastolic heart failure is usually seen in older patients with hypertension and diabetes, especially in older females,” says Biykem Bozkurt, MD, professor of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas and chair of the American College of Cardiology Heart Failure and Transplant Council.
Heart failure is often referred to as “congestive heart failure,” which means that fluid has accumulated in other parts of the body (such as in the lungs and liver) as a result of blood circulating improperly. But not all cases of heart failure are congestive.
Diagnoses are largely symptom-based
According to the American Heart Association, these symptoms on their own usually aren’t cause for concern (we’ve definitely all felt overtired before). But if you consistently experience a combination of one or more of the potential red flags, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor and make sure they aren’t cause for cardiovascular concern.
“Heart failure is diagnosed by symptoms more than anything,” explains Dr. Steinbaum. “If someone has worsening shortness of breath, inability to walk down the street, or they can’t lie flat in bed without difficulty breathing, their doctor may want to do an EKG to look for heart damage or an echocardiogram, which looks at the function of the heart muscle.” If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor to make sure it’s not signaling something more serious.
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