Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart is not pumping blood as it should, making it unable to provide the body's cells with the oxygen and nutrients they require. Despite its name, it is not a complete shutdown of the heart, but rather a chronic and progressive condition, albeit one that is usually treatable with medication and lifestyle changes. Heart failure is responsible for the greatest number of hospitalizations in people 65 years and older.

Causes of Heart Failure

Heart failure is caused by damage to the heart muscle. That damage may be caused by the following:

  • Heart attack
  • Coronary-artery disease
  • Infection
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Thyroid disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes

Various congenital heart defects can also cause heart failure.

Symptoms of Heart Failure

Heart failure may be asymptomatic, or its symptoms may come on suddenly, in which case they may be more severe than chronic symptoms, and may quickly worsen. Common symptoms of heart failure include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of legs, ankles and feet
  • Weight gain
  • Coughing

Mental confusion is also a symptom of heart failure; it is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, or a buildup of sodium in the blood.

Diagnosis of Heart Failure

To diagnose heart failure, a patient's medical history is taken, and a complete physical exam is performed. Additional tests, including the following, may be ordered:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Chest X-ray
  • Echocardiogram
  • Blood tests
  • Treadmill stress test
  • Electrophysiology (EP) study

Following a diagnosis of heart failure, it is ranked, depending on the severity of its symptoms, in one of four classes.

Treatment of Heart Failure

Chronic heart failure requires lifelong treatment to manage symptoms and prevent additional damage to the heart. Designed to improve a patient's quality of life, treatment for heart failure addresses the underlying cause of the condition to prevent it from worsening. Lifestyle changes, medication and surgery are all used to treat heart failure; in the majority of cases, more than one treatment is used.

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