It’s no secret that our bodies and minds begin to slow down as we enter our sixth and seventh decades of life. Hiking a trail that once felt like a breeze may begin to take your breath away. But there could be another reason for a host of vague symptoms people experience: heart failure.
According to the Heart Failure Society of America, an estimated 6.5 million Americans over the age of 20 have heart failure—and it’s the number one cause of hospitalizations in the Medicare population.
“The term ‘heart failure’ by itself can be scary. Doctors used to tell patients with heart failure that they wouldn’t live 5 years after diagnosis, but science and new medicine have improved the prognosis for many,” says Jennifer Cowger, M.D., a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health.
What Is Heart Failure?
Heart failure happens when damage to the heart muscle impacts the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. Coronary artery disease or heart attack are the most common causes of this kind of damage. But heart failure can also set in if you have faulty heart valves or longstanding, untreated high blood pressure.
No matter the cause, the end result is the same: The heart muscle fails to keep up with the body’s demand for blood and oxygen. In response, the heart tries to overcompensate in a few different ways:
- Growing: To meet the body’s demand for more blood, the heart stretches and expands, which allows it to contract more strongly.
- Building muscle mass: Just like a bicep that pumps iron builds more muscle, an increase in muscle mass happens when the contracting cells of the heart get bigger.
- Pumping harder: The harder and faster the heart pumps, the more blood it puts out.
At the same time, the body begins to retain fluid and may redirect blood flow away from organs and tissues, leading to kidney and other dysfunction. “While protective mechanisms can temporarily hide heart failure, over time patients begin to show signs and symptoms that their heart is not working well,” Dr. Cowger says. Patients can have spells of heart failure mixed with good days, good months and even good years.
What Are The Symptoms Of Heart Failure?
You can expect a certain degree of vitality loss as you age. You might feel winded as you climb a flight of stairs, or struggle to bench the same amount of weight you once did. That’s normal. But there are certain signs and symptoms that your heart isn’t functioning as well as it should:
- Congestion. When your heart isn’t pumping well, fluid can build up in the lungs, which can cause coughing, wheezing and heavy breathing.
- Shortness of breath. Fluid in the lungs makes it hard to breathe normally. “One of the first questions I ask patients is, ‘Can you climb a flight of stairs without stopping?’” Dr. Cowger says. “People who have severe heart failure may even be short of breath when they’re talking, getting dressed or bending over to put on shoes.”
- Swelling. When the heart doesn't pump well enough to push blood back up from the lower extremities, fluid can collect in the ankles, knees and abdomen. That extra fluid can also cause weight gain or make you feel bloated.
- Fatigue. A heart that’s struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood is working hard, so it makes sense that people with heart failure feel a sense of tiredness and fatigue.
- Changes in appetite. Heart failure patients may lose their appetite or get full quickly. “So instead of eating three meals a day, they might eat two small meals a day,” Dr. Cowger says. “Or they get nauseated and super tired after eating.”
It’s common for people to dismiss symptoms of heart failure as general signs of aging. That’s why it’s especially important to know the early warning signs of heart failure and get them checked out.
What Can You Do To Prevent Heart Failure?
Heart failure doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a chronic and progressive disease that develops over months or even years. The good news: Adopting healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way toward preventing—and treating—heart failure and other chronic diseases.
“If you maintain these habits, you can lower your risk of developing heart failure in the first place,” Dr. Cowger says. Consider the following strategies to prevent heart failure:
- Don’t smoke. One of the best things you can do to support your health is to quit smoking. People who smoke are significantly more likely to develop heart disease, which can lead to heart failure.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eating a largely plant-based diet of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds can help promote heart health and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can be a toxin to the heart and can cause significant damage, so it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol if you have an increased risk of heart failure.
- Exercise. Getting regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body. Not only does physical activity give your heart muscle a good workout, but it can also stave off other chronic diseases and improve overall health and well-being.
- Follow doctors’ orders. Heart disease of all types can increase your risk of heart failure. If your doctor prescribes medication to control high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol, make sure you take it correctly and see your doctor regularly.
For most people, heart failure is a lifelong condition, but treatment has come a long way. “Over the past decade, new medications have been a game-changer for patients with heart failure,” Dr. Cowger says. “These medications have improved short-term survival, long-term survival and reduced admissions for heart failure—and some patients can live years, even decades with heart failure.”
To learn more about advanced heart failure treatment at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Jennifer Cowger is a cardiologist specializing in caring for patients with severe heart failure, as well as those who have had — or are being considered for — a heart transplant or LVAD). She sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.