What Is Heart Failure – And Would You Recognize It?

Published: Thursday, February 18, 2021

When it comes to heart health, we don’t usually hear a lot about heart failure. But while the condition is less known than others like heart attack, it affects millions of Americans.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 5 million American adults have heart failure—and despite its large impact, it’s often misunderstood or overlooked entirely.

As we mark Heart Failure Awareness Week, let’s take a few minutes to talk through the basics of heart failure, including the symptoms to watch for.

Defining Heart Failure

First things first: What is heart failure? Contrary to the way it sounds, it doesn’t mean your heart has stopped working entirely. Rather, heart failure means that your heart isn’t working as effectively as it should be.

“When your heart is fully functioning, it adequately pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, keeping it operating at its best,” explains Ugochukwu O. Egolum, MD, FACC, chief of cardiology and medical director of the heart failure program. “But when your heart isn’t able to keep up with your body’s needs, cells don’t receive enough oxygen-rich blood they need.”

When this occurs, everyday activities such as walking or climbing the stairs may become much more difficult.

What Happens During Heart Failure

“When your heart struggles to pump blood efficiently, the heart will try to compensate by getting bigger, developing more muscle mass or pumping faster,” says Dr. Egolum. “While all of these “fixes” may help for a short time, they can have dangerous effects over time.”

Your body may also try and compensate when the heart is struggling by narrowing your blood vessels or diverting blood away from the less critical organs. This can increase your blood pressure and cause some of your body’s functions to slow down or be drastically reduced.

The Symptoms of Heart Failure

If you experience heart failure, which is also sometimes called congestive heart failure, you may experience a number of symptoms, some of which aren’t typically thought of as being heart related. These include:

  • Cough that worsens when lying down
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Frequent urination
  • Shortness of breath during non-strenuous activities
  • Swelling of the feet, legs, ankles or stomach
  • Weight gain

All of these symptoms are related to a buildup of fluid in the body, which occurs when the heart can’t pump efficiently. If you experience these symptoms, particularly if you have more than one symptom or they occur over days or weeks, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider and look into seeing a heart failure specialist.

“As a heart failure specialist, we go through advanced training to not only understand the progression of the disease, but to determine the most effective and innovative treatments that will help to manage symptoms, address limitations, and ultimately extend patients’ lives,” says Dr. Egolum. “You don’t need to wait until you’re experiencing worsening signs of heart failure to see a specialist, it’s just as important to begin managing the disease proactively, which will help to protect your good health.”

Preventing Heart Failure

Heart failure can have a number of causes, including heart attack, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Those three conditions, along with being overweight, eating a high-fat, high-sodium diet, smoking tobacco or drinking an excessive amounts of alcohol, can all increase your risk of developing heart failure.

Healthy lifestyle habits, on the other hand, can help you lower your risk. Exercise regularly – ideally 150 minutes per week – eat a balanced diet, get plenty of quality sleep, don’t smoke, limit your alcohol consumption, and work with your medical provider to manage chronic health conditions like high blood pressure.

Navigating a Heart Failure Diagnosis

If you’re diagnosed with heart failure, our Advanced Heart Failure Program experts will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan, which may include lifestyle changes, like a low-sodium diet and fluid restriction, as well as effective medications and therapies. With this personalized approach, you’ll receive the care you need to feel your best!

Remember, early diagnosis and treatment is a key part of managing heart failure. At Georgia Heart Institute, we can help guide you through the diagnosis, treatment and management of your condition, walking with you every step of the way. Request an appointment today!