Cardiac Conditions & Diseases

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What Is Heart Failure?

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. In some cases, the heart can’t fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems.

The term "heart failure" doesn’t mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working. However, heart failure is a serious condition that requires medical care.

Overview

Heart failure develops over time as the heart’s pumping action grows weaker. The condition can affect the right side of the heart only, or it can affect both sides of the heart. Most cases involve both sides of the heart.

Right-side heart failure occurs if the heart can’t pump enough blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Left-side heart failure occurs if the heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body.

Right-side heart failure may cause fluid to build up in the feet, ankles, legs, liver, abdomen, and the veins in the neck. Right-side and left-side heart failure also may cause shortness of breath and fatigue (tiredness).

The leading causes of heart failure are diseases that damage the heart. These include coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease; high blood pressure; and diabetes.

Who Is At Risk for Heart Failure?

About 5.7 million people in the United States have heart failure, and it results in about 300,000 deaths each year. The number of people who have heart failure is growing.

Heart failure is more common in:

  • People who are 65 years old or older. Aging can weaken the heart muscle. Older people also may have had diseases for many years that caused heart failure. Heart failure is the most common reason for hospital visits among people on Medicare.
  • African Americans. African Americans are more likely than people of other races to have heart failure. They’re also more likely to have symptoms at a younger age, have more hospital visits due to heart failure, and die from heart failure.
  • People who are overweight. Excess weight puts strain on the heart. Being overweight also increases your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These diseases can lead to heart failure.

Additionally, men have a higher rate of heart failure than women.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?

The most common signs and symptoms of heart failure are:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck

All of these symptoms are the result of fluid buildup in your body. When symptoms start, you may feel tired and short of breath after routine physical effort, like climbing stairs.

As your heart grows weaker, symptoms get worse. You may begin to feel tired and short of breath after getting dressed or walking across the room. Some people have shortness of breath while lying flat.

Fluid buildup from heart failure also causes weight gain, frequent urination, and a cough that's worse at night and when you're lying down. This cough may be a sign of acute pulmonary edema (e-DE-ma). This is a condition in which too much fluid builds up in your lungs. Acute pulmonary edema requires emergency treatment.

Information provided by National Heart Lung and Blood Institute