Healthy Living

Understanding the causes of heart failure and reducing your risk of getting it

February 09, 2022

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February has been celebrated as American Heart Month since 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson established it. Since then, we have become increasingly familiar with heart month. Still, many people are unaware that we also celebrate Heart Failure Awareness Week during American Heart Month. Heart Failure Awareness Week occurs during the week of Valentine’s Day. This year, it will be held Feb. 13-19.

“Heart failure is not a disease itself but a syndrome that is usually a consequence of other disease processes or conditions,” said Susan Mitchell, RN, heart failure program coordinator for Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. “It is a common condition, especially as we get older.”

Mitchell says about 6.2 million adults in the U.S. suffer from heart failure. “Heart failure does not mean that the heart stops beating. Instead, heart failure occurs when the heart cannot sufficiently pump enough blood to other organs in the body."

Heart failure develops because of other health problems. These include: Coronary artery disease, heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart valve issues, toxins (caused by illicit drug use, excessive alcohol, some chemotherapy treatments), abnormal heart rhythms, obesity, untreated sleep apnea and congenital heart defects.

To reduce the risk of developing heart failure, work closely with your primary care doctor or cardiologist on lifestyle changes. These may include:

  • Eating a healthy low sodium diet.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Stopping illicit drug use. 
  • Managing weight.
  • Managing stress.
  • Moderating alcohol intake.
  • Taking medications as prescribed.
Susan Mitchell

Early treatment of heart failure symptoms can help reduce further risk. However, many people do not recognize heart-related symptoms and thus delay treatment, which could lead to hospitalization. Common heart failure symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.
  • Edema or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs or stomach.
  • Rapid weight gain (two pounds in two days or four pounds in a week, for example).
  • Shortness of breath lying down.
  • Increased fatigue, dizziness and dry cough (especially lying down).
  • Confusion.

If these symptoms are present, notify your doctor immediately and get early treatment. Early treatment of symptoms may help avoid an emergency room visit or hospital admission.

Mitchell says if you are diagnosed with heart failure, you can take steps to control it.

“Talk to your doctor about a plan to manage your heart failure,” she says. “Ask questions to make sure that you understand your condition, change to a healthy, low-sodium diet, exercise daily and take your prescribed medicines. Lastly, educate your family and friends on heart failure.”

For more information, contact Susan Mitchell at susmitch@lhs.org.

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