7 things you may not know about heart failure – but should

By Wendy Ramunno

Help strengthen your heart by getting the facts about this chronic condition. Plus, learn smart ways to safeguard your heart health.

Heart failure. This short phrase sounds dire — like the end of everything. But as it turns out, the label doesn’t exactly fit this chronic condition. 

Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart is failing right away. But it does mean your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should, says Gurusher Panjrath, M.D., a heart failure cardiologist and associate professor at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences. And when your heart has a hard time keeping up with its workload, the rest of your body may not get the oxygen it needs to power you through your daily activities. 

“It’s a scary-sounding condition, but those who are diagnosed with it have a lot more control than they initially realize,” says Dr. Panjrath. In fact, today’s treatments do more than steady your heart’s ability to function well, he says. They can actually help make your heart stronger. 

Lesson 1 is knowing that a heart failure diagnosis doesn’t have to mean doom and gloom. This condition affects 6.2 million Americans, more than half of whom are older than 65, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).  

Lesson 2 is understanding that taking the time to learn a few key details about heart failure can help everyone — even people with a clean bill of health — take better care of their heart health. Keep reading for more important facts: 

There are warning signs

Most people who develop heart failure have a known heart problem, such as high blood pressure, says Dr. Panjrath. Coronary artery disease is another. That’s the most common type of heart disease that develops when there’s narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.  

Some people can live with heart failure for months without spotting a problem, but here are some red flags to be aware of, according to the AHA: 

  • Shortness of breath, even when you’re relaxed 
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down 
  • Waking up tired 
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or belly 
  • Overall tiredness throughout the day 
  • Feeling full or nauseated 
  • Cough that produces white or pink mucus 
  • Racing heartbeat or throbbing sensation 

Also, don’t overlook your family tree. Heart problems, including heart failure, often run in families. Share this information with your provider, who will make sure you’re screened and monitored closely. 

There’s more than one type of heart failure

You may have heard of congestive heart failure. This is one of the most serious consequences of heart failure, and it requires quick attention to address such symptoms as shortness of breath and swelling. According to the AHA, this happens when the heart’s pumping power slows so much that fluid backs up into your lungs and other tissues. 

But focusing on congestive heart failure is missing the full picture, says Johanna Contreras, M.D., an advanced heart failure specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital. Heart failure is a disease that’s best viewed on a spectrum, says Dr. Contreras. She explains that there are two general types of heart failure: 

  • Systolic heart failure, where the main problem is the heart’s difficulty pumping enough blood to meet your body’s demands. 
  • Diastolic heart failure, where the main problem is the heart’s difficulty relaxing normally. (Essentially, the heart muscle has become stiff.) This means that the heart can’t properly fill with blood during the resting period of each beat. That in turn leads to elevated pressure in the heart, as well as backups into the part of the heart that collects the blood that has already circulated through the body. 

Heart failure is treatable

Most heart failure patients are put on a 2-part treatment plan, says Dr. Contreras. 

Part 1: Medication You may need to take 2 or more medications after recent heart failure, says Dr. Contreras. Each drug plays a slightly different role in easing your heart’s workload. Also, even if your heart stabilizes or strengthens, you’ll likely need to stay on medication to keep it that way.  

Part 2: Lifestyle You will need to upgrade your eating, exercise and sleep habits. You’ll also be given tools to help you manage stress and quit smoking, if you’re a smoker.   

“Medications are necessary, but they work even better when patients also embrace new daily habits,” says Dr. Panjrath. “It’s the two measures combined that gives patients the best chance at slowing the progression of heart failure or recovery.” 

Ideally, people with heart failure will join a cardiovascular rehabilitation program. This part of the treatment plan includes supervised fitness sessions and help with meal planning. Many programs also offer classes on relaxation techniques or quitting smoking. 

Heart failure is preventable

You can help prevent heart failure by embracing the same lifestyle changes used to help treat it, says Dr. Contreras.  

The best place to start is with a routine checkup with your health care provider, she says. Your provider can spot some of the more subtle signs of heart problems. And if they catch anything, such as high blood pressure or prediabetes, they can put together a personalized action plan to help turn things around. 

Walking 20 to 30 minutes every day — even in small intervals — and strength training 2 or 3 times a week are proven ways to help improve the oxygen supply to your heart and boost your overall fitness, says Dr. Contreras.  

“The heart is a muscle,” she says. “The more you exercise the muscle, the better it does.”   

If you have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, work closely with your health care team to keep your condition under control. “The number one cause of death for people with diabetes is heart disease,” Dr. Contreras says. “So it’s very important for people with diabetes to protect their heart, control their sugar levels and take their medications.” 

The other often overlooked prevention step is sleep, which is essential for heart health, says Dr. Contreras. In fact, she screens all of her new patients for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing repeatedly pauses while you sleep. It’s associated with heart failure and other serious heart conditions, so if you suspect you might have it, seek treatment. (And ask your sleeping partner, who may have noticed your symptoms.)  

A low-salt diet is key 

A balanced diet is critical for countless reasons. Heart health tops the list. Dr. Contreras recommends lean proteins, beans, whole grains, fruits and lots of vegetables. If fresh produce isn’t available, go with frozen, not canned, That’s because canned foods often have a lot of added salt.  

Keeping an eye on the saltshaker is especially important for people with heart failure. Too much salt can make your body retain fluid, so stick to 1½ to 2 teaspoons a day, she says.

People with congestive heart failure must also watch their fluid intake. Check with your care team for recommendations based on your personal health.   

Keep track of your symptoms

Once you’ve been diagnosed with heart failure, your care team will teach you how to spot the clues your body leaves when it’s beginning to retain fluid, which can mean trouble. 

For example, you’ll be asked to step on a scale every morning. Changes in your weight from day to day may warrant a call to your provider, says Dr. Panjrath. Many patients use a homemade chart to help them track their energy levels, coughing, breathing problems and other symptoms. There are also heart failure symptom tracking apps that you can download on your smartphone.  

Family support can make all the difference 

“We always say it takes a village to take care of a heart failure patient,” Dr. Panjrath says. “It’s important for family members to understand the diagnosis and how they can help.” 

Having someone close to help can make a big difference. A family member can help with medication reminders, take notes at follow-up appointments, join you on your daily walks or simply be a voice of encouragement.  

Dr. Contreras says that educating her patients’ family members often has the added benefit of improving the health of several people in the same household all at once. “I try to get the whole family on board,” she says.

Take a closer look at heart health for older adults

Learn more ways to focus on keeping your heart healthy as you age. 

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.