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Living with Heart Failure: Treatments & Lifestyle Changes for a Fuller Future

Heart failure can be treated and managed better than ever before—here’s how you can live a longer, fuller life.

Heart failure happens when the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Living with heart failure can be a daily battle—but it’s one that can be overcome and won. Early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and an individualized treatment regimen are all factors that can help people live fuller, longer lives with heart failure.

Who is at risk for heart failure?

The two main types of heart failure are ischemic, caused by coronary disease, and non-ischemic, caused by conditions associated with weakening or dysfunction of the heart. About 25% of the U.S. population has a condition that puts them at risk for heart failure. These conditions include:

“Heart failure is the number one reason patients over 65 get admitted to the hospital,” says  Division Chief Dr. Rene Alvarez. “It’s very common, especially in those who are older and have existing heart conditions.” People with a history of smoking, excessive alcohol intake, a sedentary lifestyle, uncontrolled hypertension or eating foods high in cholesterol, fat and sodium, are also at an increased risk.

The most common symptoms of heart failure are shortness of breath and fatigue, but some people also experience swelling in extremities, feelings of weakness and an inability to exercise (including routine walking).

A range of lifesaving treatment options

For those diagnosed with heart failure, it’s important to understand that it’s not a death sentence. There are steps you can take to improve your quality of life and extend your life. “Heart failure is treatable and sometimes can even be reversed,” says cardiologist Dr. David O’Neil.

The first step, if you’re feeling breathless or experiencing swelling or fatigue, is to see your primary care physician and a cardiologist, if clinically appropriate. “We’ve come a long way in diagnosing and treating heart failure—there are lifesaving medications that can drastically improve your quality of life and extend your life expectancy,” says Dr. Alvarez.

Your cardiologist can guide you through treatment options specific to your needs and other conditions. “Our first goal is to treat your symptoms, and then look at the underlying causes of your heart failure,” says Dr. O’Neil. Many times, treating conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or hypothyroidism with medication can also help treat heart failure. In certain cases, people with heart failure may be candidates for surgery, including transplantation, mechanical circulatory support implantation (short- or long-term devices that help the heart pump blood) or pacemaker implantation.

Lifestyle changes you can make

In addition to seeing a cardiologist on a regular basis, lifestyle changes can also help those with heart failure. Drs. Alvarez and O’Neil suggest that patients diagnosed with—or are at high risk for—heart failure consider lifestyle changes that include:

  • Stopping smoking and tobacco use
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy diet and monitoring your salt intake
  • Taking medications regularly
  • Checking your blood pressure at home regularly
  • Getting other conditions treated (such as sleep apnea, diabetes, hypertension, etc.)
  • Checking with your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications (such as NSAIDs)

There are many different causes of heart failure, so there isn’t just one way to treat or prevent it. “It’s important for you to advocate for yourself and your health,” says Dr. Alvarez. “Tell your doctor about any concerning symptoms and work with them to find the treatment and prevention plan that’s right for you.”

Dr. O’Neil wants patients with heart failure to know that there is hope for a good quality of life. “I see people every day of the week who are living full lives with heart failure by taking their medications, visiting their cardiologist regularly and following a healthy lifestyle,” he says.

[Main photo credit: iStock.com/adamkaz]

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