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Facts About Congestive Heart Failure

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What is heart failure?

The term "heart failure" sounds pretty scary - as if the heart has "failed" or stopped beating. Actually, the term means that the heart isn't pumping as well as it should. Usually the heart has been weakened over time by an underlying problem, such as clogged arteries, high blood pressure, a defect in its muscular walls or valves, or some other medical condition.

Your body depends on the heart's pumping action to deliver oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood so it can function normally. In people with heart failure, the body doesn't get an adequate supply. As a result, they tend to feel weak, fatigued or short of breath. Everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, carrying groceries and yard work can become quite difficult.

This is an increasingly important clinical problem, already accounting for more Medicare hospital days than any other single medical diagnosis and currently trending upward. With an aging population, heart failure is likely to become even more important. Further, it makes life difficult for the patient, their family and the treating doctors. However, with current therapy the vast majority of patients can be stabilized or improved.

Heart failure is a clinical syndrome (symptoms and findings on exam) due to an array of disorders, most commonly a problem in the heart muscle -- with decreased ability to eject blood or impaired ability to fill or both.

The traditional view of the grim prognosis for all patients with heart failure needs to be changed in light of advances in treatment. But to achieve this improved outlook, one needs to apply this complex treatment program of four to five or more drugs, carefully increased to maximum tolerable levels.

Heart transplantation is a dramatic and exciting option that is really applicable only to a very small fraction of the heart failure population. In the sickest patients, the benefits are clearly obvious but the costs and risks are not trivial.

Artificial hearts and other experimental approaches may some day obviate even more of these transplantation procedures.

How common is "congestive heart failure"?

If you've been diagnosed with congestive heart failure or know someone who has, you're not alone. Nearly five million Americans are currently living with this condition, with 550,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

Congestive heart failure affects people of all ages, from children to young adults to the middle-aged to senior citizens. However, it is more common among older people. Therefore, as the older population grows over the next few decades, so will the number of people living with congestive heart failure or caring for a loved one who has it.

Can it be cured?

Heart failure is a serious condition, and there is usually no cure. But we deliberately use the phrase "living with heart failure" because that is what people who have it learn to do. In most cases, heart failure can be managed by taking medications and making healthy changes in habits, such as diet and exercise. The help of families and friends can be beneficial as well. These changes are often the key to leading a full, enjoyable life.