Have you noticed subtle changes in your energy level lately? Is it harder than it was six months ago to walk up steps or carry groceries from the car to the kitchen? If you're tired all the time, it's worth asking your doctor about heart failure.
Heart failure is a common diagnosis that affects nearly 6.2 million Americans. You'll need medical treatment if you're one of them. The good news is that the right care can boost your heart's function and improve any symptoms you're feeling, said Ramesh Emani, MD, a heart failure and transplant specialist at The Christ Hospital Health Network.
What is heart failure?
Heart failure may sound like your heart could stop at any moment. But that's not the case. Instead, heart failure is a chronic condition that develops when your heart muscles can't pump enough blood to get oxygen to all parts of your body. When your heart can't pump blood correctly, you don't have enough energy for your daily activities.
There are two main types of heart failure:
- Systolic heart failure: Your heart can't pump out blood.
- Diastolic heart failure: Your heart can't fill with blood.
As a result, pressure and fluid build up in your heart. You'll feel the pressure in your lungs, so you may have trouble breathing. You'll also feel tired, Dr. Emani said. Swelling in your stomach and legs are other possible symptoms.
“I draw the analogy of the kitchen sink. Normally, water runs into the kitchen sink, and the drain lets it flow to the rest of your piping system," Dr. Emani said. “But if the drain doesn't work properly, everything starts to back up and fill the sink."
What medical treatment can reduce heart failure?
Having heart failure doesn't mean you have to feel constantly tired or limit your daily activities. Improved treatments developed over the past decade combine several medications to help you get back to your everyday life, Dr. Emani said.
“The right medication therapy is the cornerstone for all heart failure treatments," he said. “You have to build a house around your heart to protect it, and these medications do that."
Your provider may prescribe a combination of medications to strengthen your heart and help it pump normally.
- Beta-blockers lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin-2 receptor blockers (ARB), or angiotensin receptor/neprilysin inhibitors (ARNI) improve blood flow by relaxing and opening your blood vessels.
- Mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists (MRA) lower the salt level in your blood, which reduces your blood pressure and opens your blood vessels.
- Sodium-glucose transport protein 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors reduce your blood sugar levels and the risk of more heart complications if you have type 2 diabetes.
Recent advancements have also led to new medications designed to treat two specific heart conditions linked to heart failure. One reverses damage caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited condition where thickened heart muscles restrict blood flow. The other targets amyloidosis, the buildup of abnormal protein in the heart.
Are non-medication heart failure treatments available?
If you have advanced heart failure, medication may not be enough to control your condition. In that case, your doctor may recommend a device or surgical procedure. Depending on your condition, they may suggest:
- Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD): This device sends an electric shock to your heart to help it reset to a normal, steady rhythm.
- Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT): This special pacemaker helps your heart relax and contract so it can pump enough blood for your body.
- Left ventricular assist device (LVAD): This mechanical pump-like device ensures your heart pumps out enough blood.
- Coronary artery bypass: Blocked arteries are a common cause of heart failure. During this procedure, your surgeon uses a healthy blood vessel from your leg, wrist or chest to reroute blood flow around the blockage.
- Valve replacement: When the valves that control how blood flows inside your heart don't work correctly, your surgeon may repair or replace them.
- Heart transplant: When other devices, medications or lifestyle changes fail, replacing your damaged heart with a healthy one can be an option.
Can you prevent heart failure?
If you have any other heart conditions, such as high blood pressure or irregular heartbeat, you are at an increased risk for developing heart failure. Fortunately, Dr. Emani said, you can take steps to reduce your risk.
- Eat a healthy diet: Limit how much fat, sugar and salt you eat. Focus on eating fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean proteins.
- Follow your treatment plan: If you have another heart condition, continue to take your prescription medication as directed. Research shows that controlling other heart problems can help prevent heart failure.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Talk with your doctor to set a healthy weight goal. They can recommend safe exercises if you need to lose a few pounds.
- Stop smoking: Smoking damages your arteries and can increase your risk of heart failure. It's equally important to avoid secondhand smoke.
Living with heart failure
Heart failure can significantly change your life. However, you can find a new normal by adopting healthy habits and surrounding yourself with a strong support network.
A big part of managing heart failure is staying as active as possible. It strengthens all your muscles and reduces the strain on your heart. Consider making a standing lunch date with a friend or blocking off time for a daily walk. As you feel stronger, you can add more social and physical activities to your daily schedule.
When you don't feel well, staying home and isolating yourself can be tempting. Try to do the opposite—connect and engage with your family and friends. Talk on the phone. Invite people over or meet them out for short visits. These interactions will boost your mental health, emotions and physical well-being.
Ultimately, Dr. Emani said, living well with heart failure is possible. The introduction of new medical therapies offers hope that all patients with this condition will be able to manage it well and lead more active lives.
Find out more about The Christ Hospital Heart Failure Care team or call to 513.206.1180 to schedule an appointment.