Facts about heart failure that might surprise you

1. Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart isn’t working at all.
Rob Green with his granddaughter Freya

Heart failure means your heart is failing to work as well as it should, and needs medicine to help it work better. Because blood is not pumped to the kidneys properly, the kidneys can retain salt and water. This extra fluid in your body can cause swelling in your ankles, feet or legs and sometimes in your tummy area. The extra fluid can also cause sudden weight gain. If the build up of fluid backs up into the lungs, this causes breathlessness. 

Heart failure is a long-term condition, but people with can live long and full lives with it. Although there’s no cure for heart failure, you can stop your condition getting worse by taking your medicines, certain treatments and changes to your lifestyle.

Rob Green had a serious heart attack and had severe damage to his heart. He says: “I try and look after myself as much as I can. I monitor my weight and blood pressure regularly and go for a blood test now and then. I have my ICD checked regularly. I’ve gone back to work, but I’m always careful. I don’t do anything that’s beyond me. Now I just enjoy doing the everyday things.

“The last time I went to see my heart failure nurse, I bounced in to my appointment and my nurse said ‘I can just tell you’re doing alright’.”

2. You can take control of your condition.

With treatment and management of your symptoms and lifestyle, you can help to slow down the progression of your heart failure. 

High blood pressure and being overweight can put a strain on your heart. 

Here are some of the things you can do take control of your heart failure:

  • Weigh yourself regularly
  • Watch the amount of fluid you have each day
  • Control your blood pressure
  • Cut down on salt
  • Limit your alcohol
  • Keep to a healthy body weight
  • If you smoke, stop
  • Keep active

3. There are treatments that can help.

Taking your medicines can help manage symptoms or prevent your condition from getting worse. It may take some time to reach the right dose or the right combination of medicines for you, and your doctor may change your medicines from time to time. Diuretics such as furosemide and bendroflumethiazide can help you get rid of excess fluid and relieve swelling and shortness of breath. ACE inhibitors such as ramipril and perindopril can have a relaxing effect on the arteries and reduce the amount of work the heart has to do to pump blood around your body. In the 1990s BHF Prof Stephen Ball helped to show that medicines called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors can improve outcomes in people with heart failure after a heart attack. Doctors now prescribe ACE inhibitors as a matter of course for heart failure, and they usually substantially improve quality of life.

As well as medications, there are other treatments that can help people with heart failure, such as a pacemaker or an ICD. If you have severe heart failure and your symptoms aren’t controlled by treatment, you may be assessed for a heart transplant.

It may be possible to treat some of the conditions that can cause heart failure – for example, if your heart failure is caused by heart valve disease it may be possible to have surgery. Treating the cause won’t cure your heart failure, but it can improve your symptoms and quality of life. 

Treatments are constantly being improved and new ones are becoming available.

4. Heart failure isn’t always due to a heart attack.

There are many reasons why heart failure may happen. The most common causes include a heart attack, high blood pressure, problems with the heart valves, and cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle).

Heart failure can also be caused by viral infections affecting the heart muscle, congenital heart problems (heart problems you’re born with) or an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), amongst other things. In some cases, the cause of heart failure is unknown. 

5. You can still do many of the things you did before

Many people with heart failure continue to work, drive, go on holiday and enjoy sexually active lives. Your doctor, nurse or cardiac rehab team can give you information and support about your everyday activities. It may be that you have to make certain adjustments, for example it’s advisable to consider a holiday somewhere that isn’t extremely hot or cold, and check that your accommodation is easily accessible. 

If you work, you may decide that you need to reduce your hours, either for a while or permanently, to help you cope with your symptoms. You can discuss with your employer what options are available to you. If your job involves heavy lifting you may need to think about changing your job to reduce the workload on your heart. Speak to your employer about your work options.


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