February is National Heart Month, a good opportunity to take inventory of your heart health.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and while heart disease encompasses several different conditions, one condition that affects many Americans (approximately 5.7 million) is heart failure.
Heart failure, or HF, has also been called congestive heart failure, or CHF. It occurs when the heart loses the ability to effectively pump blood throughout the body.
As a result, the body doesn’t receive enough oxygen and nutrients, which can cause several health problems. Heart failure is a long-term condition, but thankfully, several medications and lifestyle interventions can help improve symptoms, reduce the chance of complications and give patients a chance to live a longer, more fulfilling life.
Seniors are particularly at risk for heart failure, as the heart muscle tends to weaken over time. Age also tends to increase the risk of other diseases that can lead to heart failure, including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and diabetes.
High blood pressure weakens the heart muscle, as do the high blood sugar levels caused by diabetes. Coronary artery disease narrows the blood vessels that feed blood to your heart, causing your heart to have to work harder to pump the blood through to the rest of your body.
Other risk factors include family history, smoking, drinking alcohol, obesity and other heart conditions, such as valve issues or congenital heart defects.
If you have these risk factors, watch for symptoms, and check in with your doctor regularly.
The most common symptom of heart failure is shortness of breath, though the warning signs include:
If you are experiencing these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
There are several ways to reduce your risk of heart failure or to treat it if you have been diagnosed with HF. The primary way is to take care of your heart and keep it from being damaged further.
Live a healthy lifestyle, with the guidance of your physician if you have heart failure. This includes diet – everyone should choose fresh foods full of nutrients over processed foods and limit portion sizes. If you have heart failure, watch your sodium intake and consume less than 2,000 mg (2 grams) per day. Excess salt can lead to a buildup of fluid in your body.
Lifestyle also includes physical activity. If you do not have heart failure, continue or start an exercise habit. If you have heart failure, talk to your doctor about what activities are safe – it is important for you to exercise in a way that strengthens your heart without harming it. Keep in mind that activities include more than just “exercise” – they can include everything from housework to leisure activities.
If you smoke, stopping smoking reduces your risk of HF or helps slow down the disease. Smoking is a major cause of coronary heart disease and heart failure, and it makes it even harder to breathe.
Alcohol can also worsen heart failure symptoms and exacerbate other health issues that raise the risk of heart failure, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Avoid respiratory infections, such as the flu and pneumonia. These conditions make heart failure worse. Get the flu shot to decrease your chance of infection, and practice good hand-washing habits. It may also help to avoid large crowds during flu season.
Finally, take your medications as prescribed. Don’t skip doses. If you experience side effects from your medicines, talk to your doctor, who might be able to find a safe alternative for you.
When it comes to heart failure, there are steps you can take to lower your risk factors or to manage the disease if you are diagnosed with HF. You can plan, with the help of your physician and the support of family, friends and caregivers, to keep your heart as healthy as possible.
That, indeed, is heart success!