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Of all the scary-sounding medical terms out there, heart failure may be one of the scariest – and the most misunderstood. Heart failure (HF) is a serious chronic condition that impacts at least 26 million people globally.1 In the United States, HF affects 2.2 percent of adults over age 20. Heart failure is becoming an increasingly common condition in the United States as the population ages.
If you have heart disease, you are at an increased risk for heart failure.2
There are a lot of misperceptions about heart failure. We’ve tackled a few of the most common myths to help you separate fact from fiction and understand the steps you can take to support your heart health and improve your quality of life.
|MYTH: Heart failure means your heart has stopped beating.|
Heart failure is a confusing name – when you hear it, you may think it means the heart has completely stopped functioning, or will stop at any moment. You may equate heart failure with end of life. Heart failure is different from a heart attack, also called myocardial infarction or MI. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to the heart is cut off or severely reduced.3
In reality, heart failure means the heart is still pumping, but the amount of blood it can pump cannot meet the body’s needs.2 HF is a serious condition, but it can be managed with treatment and lifestyle changes. About half of people diagnosed with heart failure are still living five years after diagnosis.4
What Causes Heart Failure?
Many types of heart disease can lead to heart failure.5 Heart failure can be caused by any damage to the heart that makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.6 In heart failure, the heart tries to make up for this damage by growing in size, increasing muscle mass, and pumping faster. Your blood vessels may also narrow, and your body may pump less blood to some organs to compensate when the heart pumps less efficiently. The body’s coping mechanisms work temporarily and may mask the problem for a period of time.7
Any risk factors that encourage heart disease can also raise the risk for developing heart failure.8
Types of Heart Failure
There are different types of heart failure, categorized by the way in which the heart is malfunctioning. The various types of HF can cause different symptoms and require different treatments.
|Congestive heart failure|
You may have heard the terms heart failure and congestive heart failure (CHF) used to mean the same thing. They are often used interchangeably, but congestive heart failure is a particular type of heart failure. In CHF, blood gets backed up in the veins and frequently causes swelling in the legs and ankles.9
|Left-sided heart failure|
The left ventricle of the heart is responsible for the bulk of the heart’s pumping function. Left-sided HF means the heart isn’t able to adequately pump blood throughout the body.9 Left-sided HF can cause fluid build-up in the lungs and shortness of breath.2
|Systolic heart failure or heart failure with reduced ejection fraction|
This type of left-sided heart failure occurs when the left ventricle can’t contract properly. The damage to the left ventricle means the heart can’t circulate enough blood throughout the body.9 Ejection fraction describes how well the left ventricle pumps blood.8
|Diastolic heart failure or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction|
Diastolic HF occurs when the left ventricle isn’t able to relax correctly. This means the heart isn’t able to fill with blood at normal levels.9
|Right-sided heart failure|
The right ventricle is responsible for getting fresh oxygen to the blood. Damage to the right side of the heart is often a result of problems with the left side of the heart. Right-sided HF can lead to swelling in the legs and abdomen.9
|MYTH: There's nothing I can do if I'm diagnosed with heart failure.|
You may feel hopeless after learning that you have heart failure. While heart failure is a serious chronic condition, it can be managed with treatment and lifestyle changes. Treatment and lifestyle changes can slow the progression of HF, reduce symptoms, and in the early stages, may even reverse HF.10
The primary treatments for heart failure are medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery in more severe cases. Your doctor may prescribe more than one medication and will likely counsel you on important lifestyle changes that can make a big difference in your prognosis. It’s important that you take your medications exactly as your healthcare provider instructs.
You are not powerless in the face of heart failure. No matter what treatment your doctor recommends, you can adopt lifestyle habits to support your wellbeing. It may seem like a lot at first, but even small steps can make a difference. Important lifestyle changes include eating a low-sodium diet, controlling your weight, exercising, and quitting smoking.11-14 Seeking support from friends, family, and others living with heart failure can help you stick to your lifestyle changes. Your teammates at MyHeartDiseaseTeam are always available to answer questions about their own experiences and offer support.
Learn more by reading What to Expect When Living with Heart Failure.
|MYTH: Exercise is dangerous if I'm diagnosed with heart failure.|
Until the late 1980s, doctors discouraged people with heart failure from exercising. Today exercise is no longer off-limits, and may even be prescribed as part of a treatment plan for HF.15 Physical activity is known to have many benefits for your heart health and overall wellbeing, including increased energy, improved circulation, and greater muscle strength.16
What works for your family member or friend with heart failure may not be right for you. Your doctor can help you determine which types of exercise are best for you based on the specifics of your condition and any other illnesses you may have.13 Always consult your doctor before trying a new workout.
You can live a full life with heart failure, and there are steps you can take every day to support your health and quality of life. Read more about What to Expect When Living with Heart Failure.
Ready to talk to your doctor about heart failure? Download our doctor discussion guide and take it to your next appointment.
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