Heart failure does not mean your heart has stopped beating. Heart failure means your heart is not performing the way it should. In some cases, blood does not fill the heart properly; in other instances, the heart can’t propel blood to the rest of the body with sufficient force.
Blood returning to the heart can sometimes build up behind the failing heart and congest the lungs, causing shortness of breath. Decreased blood flow to organs, including the kidneys, can cause the body to retain more salt and fluid which complicates the problem further. The relationship between the heart and other organs can be a delicate one—once one is injured, it can send off a cascade of events that damage other organs and worsen heart failure.
Cardiomyopathy, which means a dysfunction or disease of the heart muscle, is a less frightening and more accurate term to describe this condition. Heart failure cannot be cured, but it can be successfully managed with diet, exercise and medication.
According to the American Heart Association, the lifetime chance of developing heart failure for adults aged 40 and older is one in five. Obviously, this is a common condition; still many people do not know they are at risk.
University of Minnesota Physicians Heart has an outstanding record of evaluating heart failure and providing innovative care to keep adults with heart failure as healthy as possible. Our heart failure programs are nationally recognized for quality and success.
Causes of Heart Failure
Anything that damages your heart can lead to heart failure. Conditions most likely to cause heart failure include:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease: clogged arteries
- Cardiomyopathy: heart muscle disease
- A previous heart attack
- Heart valve disease
- Heart valve infections
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Heart defects from birth
Coronary artery disease and heart attack are the most common causes of heart failure in men. High blood pressure is the leading cause for women.
A resilient organ, the heart can overcome weakness; in attempting to compensate for heart failure, your body will often hold onto the salt and water you consume. This serves to increase the amount of blood in your bloodstream. Your heart will often beat faster and get bigger. At some point, however, your heart failure worsens. In the process, fluid—called congestion—starts to build up in your body. That’s why heart failure is sometimes referred to as congestive heart failure.
Heart failure usually develops slowly, and symptoms may not appear until the condition has progressed. Common symptoms include the following.
- Shortness of breath which may be the result of excess fluid in the lungs. Breathing difficulties may occur at rest, during exercise, or sometimes when waking up.
- Fatigue or tiring easily as muscles and other tissues receive less oxygen and nutrients when the heart’s pumping capacity decreases.
- Fluid accumulation or edema. This may cause swelling of the feet, ankles, legs and occasionally, the abdomen. Excess fluid retained by the body may result in weight gain, which sometimes occurs fairly quickly.
- Poor appetite
- Chest fullness or pain