Heart failure is becoming a more common health care term. On first reference, it may seem like the heart is no longer working. However, heart failure actually refers to a chronic condition where the heart isn’t pumping enough blood to meet the body’s needs, and congestive heart failure is a type of heart failure that requires immediate medical attention.

When heart failure begins, the heart tries to compensate by enlarging, developing more muscle mass, pumping harder, narrowing blood vessels, and diverting blood away from the rest of the body. This can temporarily hide symptoms of heart failure, but it doesn’t reverse the condition. These compensations actually make it worse.

Since the heart tries to compensate for less blood pumping, it’s important to meet with a doctor regularly to catch heart failure early. There are some common signs of heart failure that should be discussed with a doctor:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Edema – buildup of fluid
  • Tiredness/fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Increased heart rate

While all hearts weaken with age, heart failure results from other health conditions that can damage the heart. Conditions that may lead to heart failure, include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Past heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Heart muscle disease
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Severe lung disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Severe anemia
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Abnormal heart rhythm

Since heart failure is a chronic condition, it can be an overwhelming diagnosis, but when the condition is managed, a person can live a healthy and happy life. If someone has been diagnosed with heart failure, it is important to:

  • Continue receiving medical care
  • Follow physician orders
  • Take prescribed medication as directed
  • Avoid foods high in sodium
  • Start a doctor-approved exercise plan

This February, during American Heart Month, I encourage everyone to know their personal risk for heart disease and take the necessary steps to lead a heart healthy lifestyle.

(Cindy Peters, RN, MSN, ACNP, is a nurse practitioner at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center)