Updated: March 28, 2013 6:22AM
Heart failure is a disease that is both progressive and typically chronic.
Heart failure develops when the heart is no longer able to pump strongly enough to meet the blood and oxygen needs of the body.
Initially, the body does a good job of compensating for the weak heart. The heart will enlarge so that it can fill with more blood and the heart rate will increase in an attempt to pump more blood throughout the body.
The body also has a way of knowing which organs are the most vital and will decrease the blood flow to the less vital organs in order to support the blood flow to the heart and brain. But eventually, these mechanisms for compensation fail and the patient begins to feel the failure.
Here are some of the most common symptoms patients with heart failure experience:
Shortness of breath — This occurs because blood backs up in the vessels in the lungs since the heart cannot keep up the pumping needs. Fluid then leaks into the lungs and causes the feeling of breathlessness.
Persistent cough — This also occurs from fluid backing up into the lungs. It is the body’s way of trying to get rid of the fluid.
Swelling of the legs or abdomen — This happens when the heart has difficulty keeping up moving blood throughout the body. Because of this, the return of blood back to the heart experiences a traffic jam, so to speak, and fluid begins to leak into the tissues, causing swelling.
Fatigue or exercise intolerance — Because the body cannot meet the demands of pumping blood and oxygen to all the organs and tissues appropriately, the muscles are not able to get the blood and oxygen they need. This causes the body to tire more easily and makes it less likely to tolerate exercise. Even walking up a flight of stairs can be very difficult.
Decreased appetite, nausea or feeling full quickly — This develops because the stomach receives less blood in patients with heart failure and blood is needed to digest food.
Confusion or memory problems — This can occur from electrolyte imbalances in the blood and low blood flow to the brain.
Some of the causes of heart failure include a previous heart attack, high blood pressure, heart defects from birth, diabetes, heart valve problems, viruses or sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes someone to stop breathing for a period of time during sleep. It usually results in waking during sleep and gasping for breath several times a night.
Although heart failure cannot always be prevented, there are many ways in which it can.
The following are some of the ways you can decrease your chances of developing heart failure:
Start moving. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days per week.
If you have high blood pressure, get it under control. Take medicine as prescribed. If your blood pressure remains high, see your doctor as your medication or dosage may need to be changed.
Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
If you have diabetes, get your blood sugars under control and follow up with your doctor if they are not.
Avoid alcohol. Only drink in moderation when doing so. This means a limit of one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men. A drink is considered 4 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of heart failure, do not hesitate to discuss them with your doctor.
Maria Nilsson is an advanced heart failure clinical nurse specialist at Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn.