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About Heart Failure
The term “heart failure” can cover a broad range of diseases and conditions that weaken the heart muscle. It is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., responsible for over 40% of all deaths.
Causes of Heart Failure
Heart failure occurs when your heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
Heart failure typically begins on the left side of the heart:
- Systolic heart failure—Occurs when the left side of the heart is unable to pump normally.
- Diastolic heart failure—Occurs when the left side of the heart can’t relax and fill with blood as it should.
Heart failure progresses over time and is most commonly caused by these conditions:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD)—With CAD, cholesterol and fat build up in the heart’s arteries. This build up, called atherosclerosis, makes it difficult for blood to reach and flow through the heart, which causes the heart to work harder than it should.
- High blood pressure—With high blood pressure, your heart is working harder than it should to pump blood throughout your body, and over time, your heart may become thicker and enlarged.
- Heart attack—A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked due to cholesterol and fat build up.
The presence of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, thyroid disease, and emphysema can contribute to heart failure. In addition, heart failure can occur due to heart muscle damage, heart rhythm problems, heart defects and infections, and heart valve problems.
The symptoms for heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath when doing daily activities
- Difficulty breathing at rest or when lying flat in bed
- The need to sleep with two or more pillows
- Swelling in your feet, ankles, legs, hands or abdomen (called edema)
- Weight gain of two to three pounds in a day or five pounds in a week
- Persistent cough or chest congestion
- Increased frequency of chest pain (angina)
- Changes in heart rhythm or rate
- New irregular heartbeat
- Restlessness or confusion
- Increased fatigue or decreased ability to complete daily activities
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Reducing Your Risk for Heart Failure
There is no cure for heart failure. However, with a commitment to healthy lifestyle choices and working with your doctor, you can slow its progression and improve your health and quality of life. You can take these actions:
- Talk with and see your doctor regularly
- Eat a healthy, low-fat and low-sodium diet
- Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly, within the guidelines recommended by your doctor
- Quit smoking—this can significantly reduce your risk for heart failure and improve your quality of life
- Keep track of your blood pressure
- Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor, even if you begin feeling better
If your personal Health Questionnaire/Health Assessment indicates you are at risk for heart failure or you already suffer from related diseases and conditions, we encourage you to learn more about the lifestyle coaching and disease management programs that may be available through your health plan provider (Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Tufts Health Plan, or UnitedHealthcare).
Also, learn all you can about your condition. These websites provide information and support resources:
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