Heart Failure Frequently Asked Questions

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood to the rest of the body at a normal rate. When the heart muscle becomes stiff and the ventricles (lower heart chambers) don’t fill with enough blood, a person has “diastolic” failure. In other cases, the heart muscle becomes weak and enlarged and can’t pump enough blood out to the rest of the body; this is called “systolic” failure. A person also can have both problems.

When the heart can’t pump enough blood, the body releases hormones to make the heart work harder. Some of these chemicals cause the heart muscle to grow larger while others make the heart pump faster. This initially helps blood flow, but the heart muscle can’t keep up this pace, and over time, it becomes further damaged.

When the body receives less blood, fluid backs up in the lungs and in the rest of the body. Organs also get less oxygen, and as a result, they don’t work as well. This causes symptoms throughout the body:

  • Your brain gets less blood and you feel confused or dizzy.
  • Your lungs fill with fluid and you become short of breath.
  • Your kidneys cannot get rid of the excess fluid and fluid backs up in other parts of the body.
  • Your ankles, feet and abdomen may swell.

How many people have heart failure?

An estimated 5 million Americans have heart failure. There are approximately 550,000 new cases of heart failure each year resulting in about 300,000 deaths annually.1

What causes heart failure?

Heart failure typically does not occur suddenly, but worsens over time. The condition is most commonly caused by coronary artery disease, heart attack, high blood pressure or diabetes. Other potential causes include lung disease, heart valve or heart muscle disease, congenital heart defects, heart damage from alcohol or drug abuse, heart arrhythmias, treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, thyroid disorders and too much Vitamin E.

Are certain groups more at risk for heart failure?

People who are 65 or older, African American, or obese or overweight are more likely to develop heart failure. Men have higher rate of heart failure than women, although more women have the condition. This is because women, as a group, live longer.

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

Shortness of breath when you exert yourself, weakness or tiredness with little effort, and swollen ankles, legs, feet or abdomen are the most common symptoms of heart failure. Other symptoms may include:

  • Waking up coughing or breathless at night
  • Frequent coughing
  • Frequent urination
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Nausea/lack of appetite
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Swollen neck veins

What are the treatments for heart failure?

Early diagnosis and treatment are important steps in helping people with heart failure live longer and maintain active lifestyles. How heart failure is treated depends on the type and stage of the disease. For all stages of heart failure, treatment goals include:

  • Treating underlying causes of heart failure such as coronary artery disease and high blood pressure.
  • Relieving symptoms
  • Preventing the condition from getting worse

Common treatment for any stage of heart failure will include medicines, changes in lifestyle and ongoing medical care.

Many patients in the Washington University Heart Failure Program have such advanced disease that they are candidates for heart transplants, and yet they will not receive new hearts because of the shortage of donors. Treatments for advanced disease may include use of older drugs in more effective doses or the use of promising new agents available only in clinical trials; alternative surgical therapy; or mechanical devices implanted as permanent support systems.

What can people with heart failure do to care for themselves?

People with heart failure often can take simple steps to help control their disease and make them feel better. If you have heart failure, these lifestyle changes may benefit you:

  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Lose weight if you are overweight or obese
  • Follow your doctor’s advice on exercise and physical activity
  • Stay as active as possible
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid using illegal drugs
  • Get enough rest

Learn more about living with heart failure. 

  1.  “Heart Failure.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Hf/HF_Summary.html. Accessed on 3/18/08.