Heart failure is a complex, progressive disease process that occurs when the heart’s pumping action is ineffective in meeting the basic metabolic requirements of your body. Despite its misleading name, "heart failure" does not mean that your heart suddenly stops working. Instead, heart failure develops slowly as your heart muscle gradually weakens. The term "failure" refers to your heart's inability to pump enough blood to meet your body's needs.

Symptoms of heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure worsen over time and commonly include:

  • Shortness of breath – may get worse when you lie down
  • Fatigue – results when muscles are deprived of oxygen
  • Chronic cough – due to fluid buildup in the lungs
  • Fluid retention – especially in the legs and feet
  • Heart palpitations – racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea, lack of appetite
  • Dizziness, fainting spells
  • Difficulty concentrating

Causes of heart failure

Heart failure can result from any structural or functional cardiac disorder that impairs the ability of the left ventricle (lower chamber of the heart) to fill with or eject blood.

Factors that can cause heart failure include:

Risk factors for heart failure

Heart failure is more common in older adults, men and people of African American descent. Factors that increase your chances of getting heart failure include:

  • Obesity
  • Excess intake of salt and fat
  • Excess alcohol intake
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • High fever
  • Severe infection, such as pneumonia
  • Chronic lung disease – emphysema
  • Chemotherapy
  • Psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety

Are you at risk for heart disease? Take our online Heart Risk Assessment.

Diagnosing heart failure

To find out if you have heart failure, your physician may suggest one or more of the following tests:

Treatments for heart failure

Treatment of heart failure typically includes a combination of medications (beta blockers, ACE inhibitors or ARB blockers, diuretics, Digoxin, Aldactone) and one or more of the following:

  • Devices – pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)
  • Lifestyle modifications – including smoking cessation, exercise and heart-healthy eating
  • Cardiac rehabilitation – holistic care program encompassing exercise, diet, medications to reduce symptoms and lifestyle and coping skills

Advanced heart failure

According to the American Heart Association, of the more than 6 million Americans living with heart failure, about 10 percent have advanced heart failure. For these individuals, conventional heart therapies and symptom management strategies no longer work.

While advanced heart failure can’t be cured, it can be treated. Treatments for advanced heart failure include surgical and non-surgical procedures; the use of devices, such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs); and heart transplant. Your physician will discuss your treatment options with you, including the risks, side effects and benefits associated with each.

Managing risk factors for heart failure

While a variety of issues can increase the risk of heart failure, many risk factors can be avoided or managed by:

  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing other health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure

Heart failure specialists

The experienced heart specialists at Houston Heart are experts at diagnosing and treating heart conditions, including heart failure. We can address your individual risk factors and help you take steps to prevent heart failure.

To learn more, schedule an appointment.