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Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue

Understanding heart failure

02/13/2008 - According to the American Heart Association (AHA), nearly five million Americans are living with heart failure, and more than half a million new cases are reported each year.

While that's certainly a large number, it may also be comforting to people with a family history of heart disease or those recently diagnosed with heart failure to know that they're not alone and that there's no reason they cannot enjoy a full life. Of course, knowing about heart failure and its symptoms and risk factors can only help make the battle that much easier.

What Is Heart Failure?

Contrary to what its name might imply, heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working. Instead, heart failure occurs when the heart stops pumping the amount of blood necessary for the body to function properly. As this happens, the body then tries to make up for it in a handful of ways, such as the heart beginning to beat faster and the heart actually expanding. As the heart chamber expands, it stretches more and contracts more strongly, enabling it to pump more blood.

Another thing the body does is hold onto salt and water, which increases the amount of blood in your bloodstream. This leads to congestion, hence the moniker "congestive heart failure" used by some in the medical profession.

How Does Heart Failure Manifest Itself?

Because the body does things to make up for the heart not pumping blood as well as it should, heart failure is often difficult to recognize. Oftentimes, the aforementioned steps the body takesare so effective that it's common to not even know the heart is suffering from a disease.

However, as the AHA notes, heart failure is typically a chronic disease, meaning it's a long-term condition that will continue to get worse. As hard as the body works to make up for the heart not pumping blood at full capacity, eventually the body will begin to lose ground and certain symptoms will arise. Some of the early symptoms include feeling tired easily, being short of breath upon physical exertion, feelings of weakness and dizziness, and heart palpitations, where the heart feels as if it's racing or pounding.

Eventually, the fluid buildup that occurs becomes too much for the body as well, and several symptoms can manifest themselves as a result.

Swelling in the lower half of the body, such as the legs, ankles or feet

Coughing or wheezing, particularly when lying down

Increased need to urinate at night

Shortness of breath, even when resting

What Causes Heart Failure?

Many health conditions arise as a result of lifestyle choices such as poor diet or negative behaviors such as smoking or excessive drinking. Others are the result of genetics, such as being born with a defect. Heart failure can result from both personal behaviors and genetics.

Controllable factors that are associated with heart failure include smoking, poor diet (particularly eating foods that are high in cholesterol), lack of exercise, and being overweight. In other words, any of those conditions only increase a person's risk of heart failure. They can also manifest themselves in several different ways.

Coronary Artery Disease: this happens when cholesterol and fatty deposits build up in the heart's arteries, lessening the amount of blood that reaches the heart, forcing the heart to work harder as a result. A high-cholesterol diet is a big risk factor for coronary artery disease.

Hypertension: also known as high blood pressure, hypertension increases a person's risk of developing heart failure by two to three times according to the AHA. Hypertension can occur from too much stress, be it work- or family-related. A great way to relieve stress is through regular physical exercise. People who do not exercise regularly increase their risk of hypertension, and in doing so, their risk of heart failure as well.

Lung disease: when the lungs are not functioning properly, it causes the heart to work that much more to get oxygen to the rest of the body. Smoking increases the risk of lung disease, which then increases the risk of heart failure.

To learn more about heart failure, visit the American Heart Association Web site at

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