It’s estimated that 5 million Americans have Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), a chronic and often undiagnosed medical condition in which the heart becomes weak and unable to pump blood effectively throughout the body. Although the words “heart failure” sounds alarming, it does not mean your heart has stopped beating or is about to. It means your heart is unable to pump blood the way it should, to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your body or remove waste from it. By not being able to effectively remove waste from the body, fluids build up in the lungs and other body tissues (including the abdomen, feet, ankles and legs). CHF is often chronic, which means it can be managed and treated, but not cured. Day-to-day activities such as walking, climbing a flight of stairs or grocery shopping can be difficult because you can, among other things, get short of breath and feel tired.
There are several different causes of CHF. Some risk factors are high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeat, heart valve disease, congenital heart defects (defects you are born with), heart muscle disorder, previous heart attack(s), diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse.
A patient may go years without visible symptoms of CHF, and the symptoms typically worsen as you age. As the heart weakens, it pumps less blood. CHF develops slowly as you age because the heart itself tries to counteract its weakness by enlarging itself and pumping faster, attempting to keep the same amount of blood moving through the heart. However, this is only temporary. The heart eventually tires and cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s requirement. Some symptoms of CHF include shortness of breath, feeling weak and/or tired, fatigue, swelling of the ankles, feet or legs, dizzy spells that can lead to decreased attention span and memory loss, frequent urination at night, an irregular or fast pulse, and weight gain from excessive fluid.
To see why your heart has weakened, a physician will perform an examination, ask questions and possibly do some tests. The physician is looking for signs and symptoms of CHF as well as any underlying condition that may have caused your heart to weaken. The physician will use a stethoscope to listen for an irregular or quick heartbeat, and will listen to your chest for sounds of fluid around your lungs or the distinct sounds of a faulty heart valve. Your physician may order a chest x-ray to see if your heart is enlarged and detect any fluid around the lungs. An EKG (electrocardiogram) can be used to check for irregular heartbeats or prior heart attack. Echocardiography (sonography of the heart) can see the structure and movement of your heart. Other tests such as stress tests, holter monitor, nuclear scans and cardiac cath can be used as well.
Your physician uses the information learned to develop a treatment plan. The treatment for CHF depends on the cause and severity of your condition. It’s best treated when the cause of your CHF is identified. The treatment plan is designed to relieve some of your symptoms and may include medications to help your heart work better, rest periods during the day, dietary changes to reduce the amount of sodium you ingest, physical activity as prescribed by your doctor, lifestyle changes such as limiting how much alcohol you drink, quitting smoking, controlling your high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels, and weighing yourself daily to watch for fluid buildup.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one person dies every 36 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease. About 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year – that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. This is because people are living longer. As baby boomers age, CHF rates will increase. CHF is the number one cause for hospital admission in the United States for people age 65 and older. The best treatment for CHF is prevention but it’s equally important for those who suffer from CHF to know they have options. People with CHF can lead happy, productive lives. It’s important for those suffering with CHF to include their families and friends, build a support network, make the lifestyle and dietary changes they need to, and frankly become active participants with their physicians in the management of their health. If you’re suffering from some of the signs and symptoms of CHF and have not been to a doctor recently, please call your primary care physician and set up an appointment.