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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: Managing Heart Failure?

separator When you have heart failure, your heart can’t pump blood throughout your body efficiently. It’s important to remember that if you have heart failure, it doesn’t mean your heart has failed; it simply means that your heart isn’t working as well as it should.

Heart failure develops over time, as your heart becomes weaker. It can affect the left side of the heart or the right side. If the right side is affected, the heart can’t pump enough blood to the lungs. If the left side is affected, the heart can’t pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Sometimes, both sides of the heart are affected.

Who is most at risk?
The two highest risk groups for heart failure are

  • People who are 65 or older. (Heart failure is the number one reason for hospital visits among people in this age group.)
  • African Americans

Factors that increase your risk of heart failure include:

  • Diabetes
  • An overactive thyroid
  • An infection in the heart muscle
  • Extreme obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Damaged heart valves

Signs of heart failure
One of the most common signs of heart failure is shortness of breath. This is caused by excess fluid in the lungs. It can happen when you’re at rest or when you’re exercising. Other signs include

  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen
  • Trouble sleeping, and waking up short of breath
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling tired all the time

Most of the time, people don’t notice heart failure symptoms until the condition has been present for quite a while—sometimes even years. That’s because your heart adjusts to the pumping difficulties by becoming larger, by strengthening its muscle fibers and by contracting more frequently. These adjustments can delay the symptoms, but eventually, the heart can’t keep up, and the symptoms of heart failure appear.

What can heart failure patients do to control their condition?
Heart failure is one of the most common health problems. It’s a chronic condition that affects approximately 4.9 million people in this country. When patients, along with their healthcare team, manage it well, hospital visits are decreased, stays in the hospital are shorter and you feel better.

If you have heart failure, working closely in partnership with your doctor and other members of your healthcare team to identify and manage the factors that contribute to your condition is really the key. For example:

  • If you smoke, talk with your doctor about ways to quit. Studies have shown that people who get help from their doctors have a higher success rate.
  • If you notice that any of your symptoms are getting worse, or if you notice any new symptoms, report them to your doctor right away.
  • Work closely with a dietitian or nutritionist or diabetes educator to figure out how you should be eating. Eating the right food is a key component of care. Have you learned how to limit salt when you cook? If you have diabetes, are you doing everything you can to keep your blood sugar under control? Are you sure your portion sizes are about right? These kinds of things can make a big difference in helping you feel better and slowing down the progression of your condition.

What about alternative remedies for heart failure?
Before we say anything about these, the number one thing for you to know is that you should not take any medication—prescription, over-the-counter, herb, supplement or anything else—without discussing it with your doctor. And by all means, don’t ever stop taking your prescribed medication, even if you do investigate some of the alternative remedies out there.

There are two alternative remedies that may be beneficial for some people who have heart disease:

  • Coenzyme Q10 (also called coQ10): This is an antioxidant that some studies indicate may help strengthen the heart cells in people with heart failure.
  • Hawthorn (360 milligrams daily): This herb is popular in Europe. It has been shown in some studies to decrease the symptoms of heart failure and to help reduce blood pressure somewhat.

If you’re interested in trying either of these two alternatives, talk with your doctor about whether they would be safe for you. If you don’t have heart failure but you’re in a high risk group, you may also want to ask whether it would be a good idea to take coenzyme Q10 or hawthorn for prevention.

For additional information about heart failure treatment at Catholic Healthcare Partners, read “Congestive Heart Failure: New Initiative Improves Patient Care,” from the February/March 2004 issue of our Healthy Heart E-Magazine.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Pharmacotherapy, July 2001; K. Pelletier, The Best Alternative Medicine, Simon & Schuster, 2000
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