Congestive heart failure, or CHF, is the most common reason for hospitalization for those aged 65 or better, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Despite the alarmist name, heart failure doesn’t mean your heart has stopped. It just means your heart isn’t pumping blood as effectively as it should.
“We often see heart failure occur when there is damage over the course of several years from conditions that are not being well managed like high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity,” said Tracy Randleman, RN, a clinic care coordinator for heart failure patients at Samaritan Heart Center.
The American Heart Association warns that conditions like coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, or arrhythmias can put you at a higher risk for heart failure.
What Happens During Heart Failure?
Some conditions weaken the heart and others make it stiffer, but the end result is that the heart has to work harder to pump blood. The heart can’t keep up and it becomes less efficient at getting blood to vital organs and tissue.
Early in the process of CHF, the body tries to compensate for the weakening heart. The heart may enlarge or develop more muscle in order to pump more blood, or it may begin to pump faster. But these solutions are only temporary.
“You may not notice any outward symptoms for several years while the heart is going through this process,” said Randleman, who points out that regular follow-up with a primary care provider, even if you feel fine, is one of the best chances of early identification and management heart failure.
As the heart becomes weaker, symptoms become progressively worse. You may begin to notice:
- Shortness of breath, even when doing normal tasks.
- Swelling in the legs and ankles.
It can be easy to overlook some of these symptoms or chalk them up to old age, but heart failure can be managed if it is found early.
“Heart failure is treatable and with lifestyle changes and medication, most people can maintain a fairly high quality of life,” said Randleman.
If you are diagnosed with heart failure, your clinician may recommend lifestyle changes that can help your heart:
- Adopt a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet, like the DASH diet.
- Exercise every day for at least 20 minutes. If your energy is very low you may benefit from cardiac rehabilitation, which can help you improve your activity level in a medically safe environment.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Keep conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes well managed.
- Quit smoking.
Your clinician may also recommend medications that can lower blood pressure or help your heart beat stronger. Severe cases of heart failure may require surgery for a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator to help regulate the heartbeat.
According to the American Heart Association, conventional therapy and symptom management strategies like those listed above work for about 90 percent of the 6 million people who live with heart failure.
“The long-term outlook for people with heart failure depends a lot on how well they manage their other conditions,” said Randleman.
Home Care After Hospitalization
If you end up being admitted to the hospital because of your heart failure, the statistics are somewhat sobering: nearly one in four will be back at the hospital within a month, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
“Heart failure is the result of years of damage so there is not just one thing that people can change after a hospital visit that will result in a quick improvement,” said Randleman. “One of the goals before leaving the hospital is for patients to understand their condition and know what tools are available to them so they can take better care of their hearts.”
If you are hospitalized for heart failure, Randleman recommends following these tips to reduce your chances of winding up in the hospital again:
- Ask questions if you don’t understand something while you’re in the hospital.
- Keep any follow-up appointments after you’re discharged.
- Be an active participant in your health. Changing eating habits or quitting smoking can be difficult, but those changes can make a big difference to your health. Ask your clinician for help if you don’t know where to start or are feeling overwhelmed.
- Take medications as prescribed. Whenever you fill a new prescription, make sure the pharmacy knows all the medications you are currently taking. Using one pharmacy can help simplify this process.
- Keep other conditions well managed. High blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, obesity, coronary artery disease, kidney failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anemia, depression, and others can all take a toll on your heart. Work with your clinician to keep these conditions within a healthy range.
Learn why Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center recently received a 5-star rating from Healthgrades for its treatment of heart attack and heart failure.
Tracy Randleman, RN, is a Clinic Care Coordinator at Samaritan Cardiology – Corvallis. She promotes the care and education of heart failure patients to help them achieve the best possible outcomes.
Samaritan Heart Center provides a wide range of advanced cardiology and cardiac surgery services. Our affiliation with Stanford Health Care provides access to even more life-saving cardiac procedures for local patients. For more information, visit samhealth.org/Heart or call 888-263-6092.