Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is unable to supply enough blood to the body's organs. The heart doesn't stop beating. Rather, over a period of time it beats less effectively, so that it's no longer able to efficiently circulate blood through the body. As the heart weakens, fluids tend to build up, causing congestion in the lungs and other tissues. This condition was originally called congestive heart failure, but in 2005 the name was officially changed to heart failure.
Patients who have survived heart attacks or who have heart disease are living longer than they used to due to medical advances in treating these conditions. But as their disease progresses, patients with heart failure become more disabled and increasingly require home nursing care. An estimated 5 million Americans currently have heart failure, according to the National Institutes of Health. After having a heart attack, more than 40 percent of women and more than 20 percent of men will be disabled with heart failure in six years or less.
Heart Failure Patients and Disability
A group of researchers from the University of Michigan Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System studied the degree of disability among heart failure patients. Their study, based on responses from 10,626 survey respondents 65 years of age and older, has important implications for heart failure patients and their families and the health care system in this country.
The study authors reported that, compared to people either with or without coronary heart disease, heart failure patients were:
How is heart failure treated?
Treatment for heart failure includes rest, oxygen, medication (like digitalis) that strengthens the pumping ability of the heart, and medication that prevents irregular heart rhythms. Patients take diuretic medications to help the kidneys remove more salt and water from the blood and thus decrease the volume of blood the heart must pump.
Doctors often prescribe low-sodium diets to prevent water buildup in the blood and tissues (salt tends to cause fluid to accumulate in the body). In more severe or chronic cases, they may give a drug to expand the blood vessels and thus make it easier for the heart to pump blood through them. Newer medications known as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors have been very effective in treating heart failure.
In some cases, the original cause of the heart failure can be corrected. For example, surgeons may perform bypass surgery on the coronary arteries to improve blood supply to the heart muscle. Surgery may also replace or correct a faulty heart valve or repair an aneurysm. Contributing factors to be controlled or eliminated include high blood pressure, anemia, excess salt or alcohol intake, fever, an overactive thyroid gland and stress caused by overexertion.
Patients with very severe heart failure are at high risk of life-threatening alterations in heart rhythm. In some cases, doctors may recommend the insertion of an implantable defibrillator, a device that corrects such rhythm disturbances.
For more information about heart failure, take a look at the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Your Heart Works
- How Your Lungs Work
- How Your Kidneys Work
- How Blood Works
- How Ultrafiltration Works
- Is there a link between heart disease and kidney disease?
- How Heart Failure Medications Work
- What are the symptoms of heart failure?
- How Vasodilator Drugs Work
- How Fluid Overload and Edema Work
- How Orthopnea Works
- How Jugular Venous Distension Works
- How Inotropic Drugs Work
- How Diuretics Work
- How Low-Sodium Diets Work
More Great Links
- Bart BA, Boyle A, Bank AJ, et al. Ultrafiltration versus usual care for hospitalized patients with heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2005; 46:2043-2046.
- Bourge RC, Tallaj JA. Ultrafiltration: a new approach toward mechanical diuresis in heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2005; 46:2052-2053.
- Burns RB, McCarthy EP, Moskowitz MA, et al. Outcomes for older men and women with congestive heart failure. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1997;45:276-280.
- Costanzo MR, Saltzberg M, O'Sullivan J, et al. Early ultrafiltration in patients with decompensated heart failure and diuretic resistance. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2005; 46:2047-2051.
- Elkayam U, Hatamizadeh P, Janmohamed M. The challenge of correcting volume overload in hospitalized patients with decompensated heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007;49:684-686.
- Gure TR, Kabeto MU, Blaum CS, et al. Degree of disability and patterns of caregiving among older Americans with congestive heart failure. J Gen Intern Med. 2008;23:70-76.