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Heart failure? There is reason for hope

Red buttons forming the shape of a heart.

Heart failure usually can’t be cured, but treatment can improve symptoms. To get the most out of treatment, you and your doctor need to work together as a team.

Learning from your doctor that you have heart failure can be frightening. But it's important to remember this: Heart failure doesn't mean your heart has stopped working.

Rather, your heart has been weakened and isn't working as well as it should.

Heart failure usually can't be cured. But treatment can help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Read on to learn more. But first, it helps to know a little about heart failure and its causes.

A damaged heart

A number of factors can weaken the heart, setting the stage for heart failure. Getting older is a risk factor. So is having a medical condition that damages the heart, such as:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Clogged arteries.
  • A previous heart attack.

When the heart is damaged, it can't circulate blood properly throughout the body. This can cause the classic symptoms of heart failure:

  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Heart palpitations.

Some of these symptoms can make it difficult to do daily activities, such as walking or climbing stairs. But there are treatments that may help relieve heart failure symptoms.

Medicines are a major help

A number of medicines can help with heart failure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Some improve circulation by strengthening the heart's pumping action or expanding blood vessels. These drugs include ACE inhibitors, vasodilators and beta-blockers.

Others, called diuretics, help lower the amount of water and sodium in the body, which helps reduce the heart's workload.

Lifestyle changes are also important

Medicine isn't the only answer to coping with heart failure. Lifestyle changes are also vitally important when it comes to improving heart failure symptoms and slowing the disease's progression.

The AHA recommends:

  • Quitting smoking if you smoke.
  • Controlling your blood pressure.
  • Working with your healthcare team to create an appropriate exercise program.
  • Cutting down on the salt you eat.
  • Eating foods low in saturated and trans fats.
  • Scheduling times to rest, and making sure you get a good night's sleep.
  • Avoiding or limiting caffeine.
  • Reducing your stress.
  • Seeing your doctor frequently.
  • Limiting your daily fluid intake, if your doctor advises. This may be necessary to avoid fluid retention, which is common in heart failure.

Surgery sometimes helps

Surgery may be recommended to help correct some of the illnesses that cause heart failure.

For instance, coronary artery bypass surgery and angioplasty can ease heart failure symptoms by increasing blood flow to the heart.

A special type of pacemaker may also help the heart pump efficiently.

And left ventricular assist devices can sometimes be implanted to improve the heart's pumping ability.

Heart transplants may be done for people in the very late stages of heart failure, but people often wait several months for a suitable donor heart. Currently, only about 2,500 heart transplants are performed each year.

Take heart

It's important to understand that if you or someone you love has heart failure, there's much that can be done to make life better.

Work with your healthcare team and follow their advice. That's important, because when heart failure is well managed with medicines and lifestyle changes, many people are able to live a full and active life, according to the AHA.

Reviewed 11/1/2023

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