According to the American Heart Association (AHA), that’s the number of people in this country who are currently living with heart failure.
The Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA) says that heart failure is “a syndrome characterized by high mortality, frequent hospitalizations, poor quality of life, multiple comorbidities, and a complex therapeutic regimen.”
Simply put, heart failure can be a very serious condition that puts people at greater risk for death, disability, and additional complications. When people are hospitalized for heart failure, for example, there’s a risk of developing hospital-acquired, antibiotic-resistant infections.
By staying informed about heart failure and taking the right steps to manage it — like staying in close communication with your physician or family nurse practitioner — you can rise above heart failure and enjoy your life. There are many excellent heart failure resources you can go to, such as those from the AHA, the HFSA, and others.
In addition, here are five things this nurse wants you to know about this potentially deadly condition.
1. Heart Failure Doesn’t Discriminate Based on Age
Although getting older can put you at higher risk for heart failure, the condition can occur at any age. In fact, when I worked in the neonatal and pediatric intensive care units, I cared for many babies and children with heart failure due to a variety of causes. During my years working with adults in critical care and hospice, I witnessed heart failure across a variety of ages in these populations as well.
You could develop heart failure for any number of reasons related to a variety of health conditions, including:
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
- faulty heart valves
- a damaged heart muscle
- inflammation of the heart due to infection
- congenital heart defects
- abnormal heart rhythms
- chronic diseases, such as diabetes and thyroid disorders
2. Not All Heart Failure Is Created Equal
Because heart failure can have many causes, it may also manifest differently depending on the cause.
As the Mayo Clinic notes, acute heart failure occurs suddenly, with symptoms that are more dramatic, such as during a major heart attack. For acute heart failure, symptoms may include these among others:
- chest pain
- severe shortness of breath
- pink and frothy sputum
- a rapid heart rate
Chronic heart failure occurs more gradually and is ongoing. Associated symptoms may include:
- swelling in the lower extremities and abdomen
- shortness of breath
- chronic cough
There are differences between left-sided heart failure and right-sided heart failure as well, as noted in this detailed description by the AHA.
3. Heart Failure Can Creep Up on You When You Least Expect It
When my friend told me she saw a television commercial about heart failure that described her situation perfectly, it was a good reminder of how stealthy this common condition can be.
She’d been struggling for weeks as her condition worsened, but couldn’t pinpoint the cause. In the ad she referenced, a man is sitting in his living room calmly reading the newspaper while water slowly rises around him. His whimpering dog understands the danger, but he’s oblivious to what’s happening.
That’s the insidious nature of heart failure, and why patients often don’t recognize symptoms before it’s too late. Knowing what symptoms to look for and when to call your healthcare provider are key. The Cleveland Clinic offers an excellent and comprehensive list of both.
4. Heart Failure Can Mimic Other Conditions
Because many of the symptoms of heart failure appear gradually and are common to other conditions as well, it can be easy to blame them on something else.
- You may feel short of breath, fatigued, or weak, for example, and your symptoms may be attributed to being overly tired.
- Swelling of the lower extremities, weight gain, and abdominal swelling might be linked to overindulging the week before.
- Lack of appetite and nausea might be chalked up to a stomach ailment.
- A persistent cough or wheezing might be blamed on the pollen count.
But if you’re at risk for heart failure, these are the types of symptoms you should be on high alert for — and notify your healthcare provider right away if they occur.
5. You Have More Control Over Heart Failure Than You Might Think
Although dealing with heart failure may seem overwhelming at times, you have more control than you may think. By taking a few simple but consistent steps, you can better keep your heart failure in check and enjoy your life while you do:
- Weigh yourself daily to monitor fluid status
- Monitor yourself for new symptoms
- Take your medications as directed
- Eat a low-sodium diet
- Maintain regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider
The AHA provides an excellent checklist as a reminder of these steps — as well as warning signs that signal when you should contact your healthcare provider.
With continuing advances in technology, your doctor or nurse may even be able to monitor your status from afar. In addition, getting regular exercise according to your provider’s guidance, maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet, and making other positive lifestyle changes are key.
If you’re among the nearly six million people living with heart failure, the good news is that there are many things you can do to manage this condition, and you are not alone. The AHA’s Rise Above Heart Failure online community offers a chance for you to connect with others so you can get the support you need, one step at a time.