Heart failure, which affects approximately 6.2 million U.S. adults, can be a confusing term. Contrary to what many people assume, it does not mean that your heart no longer works, or has stopped beating, but rather that this vital organ cannot pump blood and oxygen as well as a healthy heart. While heart failure is a progressive condition with the potential for serious health complications, it can be managed through lifestyle changes and medication. Read on to learn about heart failure symptoms, causes, and treatment options.
What is heart failure?
In all cases of heart failure, the heart cannot deliver enough blood and oxygen to the rest of your body. Sometimes this is because weakened heart muscle leaves the heart’s main pumping chambers — the ventricles — unable to carry out their pumping function. This type of heart failure is called heart failure with reduced left ventricular function (HF-rEF). In other cases, the ventricles are too stiff to fill with enough blood between beats. This type of heart failure is called heart failure with preserved left ventricular function (HF-pEF).
Ejection fraction (EF) is an important measurement of heart function for those who have heart failure with reduced left ventricular function. Expressed as a percentage, EF measures the amount of blood pumped from the left ventricle when it contracts. An EF of 55 to 70% is considered a healthy range.
Since heart failure is a progressive condition, your EF gives your doctor insight into any changes in your heart function. An echocardiogram is the most common way to measure your EF, but a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or nuclear stress test may also be used.
Despite the importance of EF, it is not the sole determinant of heart function. Those who have heart failure with preserved left ventricular function may have a normal EF. These cases of heart failure are often caused by high blood pressure, which gradually thickens the ventricles. Stiff ventricles cannot relax enough to fill to their full capacity, which is why they do not pump out enough blood.
Heart failure can affect many other organs, including the lungs, liver, and kidneys. The potential for additional health complications increases as heart disease progresses, which is why it’s important to stay proactive about your health and follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment.
Causes and symptoms of heart failure
Heart failure primarily occurs as the result of other health conditions that weaken or stiffen the heart. Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, is the leading cause of heart failure. The condition gradually narrows and thickens the arteries that supply your heart with blood and oxygen. Severe blockages in the arteries can prevent the heart from pumping enough blood, leading to the development of heart failure.
High blood pressure is another common cause of heart failure, particularly cases of heart failure with preserved left ventricular function (HF-pEF). If you have high blood pressure, your heart has to work harder to deliver blood to the rest of your body. Over time, this can make your left ventricle too stiff to properly pump out blood.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are linked to heart failure, as high blood sugar can affect your blood vessels and cardiac nerves. Heart failure may also be caused by a variety of heart health conditions including cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease, heart valve disease, and arrhythmias.
Lifestyle factors such as smoking, eating a high-cholesterol or high-sodium diet, heavy alcohol consumption, and a lack of physical activity may increase your risk for heart failure, especially if you have one of the conditions above.
These are some of the most common symptoms of heart failure:
Shortness of breath when exercising or lying down
Fatigue and a feeling of weakness in your legs
Swelling in your ankles, legs, and abdomen
Nausea and loss of appetite
Rapid weight gain
A persistent dry, hacking cough or wheezing
Treatment for heart failure
There is a spectrum of severity of heart failure cases, and treatment varies by individual depending upon symptoms and heart function, as well as the underlying cause. If you have early-stage heart failure, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes and prescribe medications that can alleviate symptoms and prevent the condition from progressing.
The following medication classes, many of which lower blood pressure, are commonly used to treat early stages of heart failure.
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
Often used to treat high blood pressure, ACE inhibitors block production of a hormone that causes blood vessels to narrow, helping constricted blood vessels expand so that more blood can flow through.
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)
Like ACE inhibitors, ARBs protect blood vessels from a hormone that causes them to narrow, lowering blood pressure.
Another medication class commonly used in the treatment of high blood pressure, beta blockers cause the heart to beat more slowly, which lowers your blood pressure and opens up your veins and arteries.
Calcium channel blockers
Calcium channel blockers prevent calcium from entering the smooth muscle cells of the heart and blood vessels so that the heart can beat with less force. This opens up narrowed blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
Anticoagulants or blood thinners
If you have atrial fibrillation — an irregular heart rate condition — or another heart health condition, your treatment plan for heart failure may include anticoagulants, medications that reduce the blood’s ability to form new clots and prevent existing clots from growing.
Cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins may be used to treat those who have early-stage heart failure and high cholesterol.
Many people with heart disease retain fluid. Diuretics, also referred to as water pills, can help eliminate excess water and sodium, which reduces the heart’s workload.
Small lifestyle changes are an important part of managing mild to moderate cases of heart failure. They can help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the condition. Here are some of the lifestyle changes your doctor may recommend.
Avoiding or limiting your alcohol intake
Avoiding or limiting your caffeine intake
Staying physically active
Anyone can benefit from these lifestyle changes, even those who do not have heart failure. Heart-healthy living is a lifelong practice, and the best way to prevent health issues like heart failure in the future is to prioritize your heart health today.
Surgery and pacemakers
Some individuals with more advanced heart failure may need a procedure such as coronary bypass surgery or an angioplasty, both of which target a blocked coronary artery. Pacemakers may also be used to help control the rhythm of their heart, often in tandem with a bypass surgery and medications.
Protect your heart with support from Alto
At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to manage your risk for heart health issues and follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends. We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.
Reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.