Heart Failure Isn't a Death Sentence

The term "heart failure" is terrifying. But, contrary to what many folks think, it doesn't mean that your heart has stopped working.

Rather, it means that your heart isn't working as well as it should. And as a result, it's working harder to pump blood throughout your body and could use some support to work better.

Heart failure can afflict folks at any age. Some of the symptoms are subtle, so many people living with heart failure aren't even aware that they have it.

Heart failure is incredibly common, and it's a growing problem in the U.S. According to the American Heart Association, about 6.2 million adults suffered heart failure between 2013 and 2016, up from 5.7 million adults between 2009 and 2012...

And in 2020, nearly 700,000 people died from heart disease. Heart failure is responsible for 1 in every 8 deaths. Plus, it's the No. 1 cause of hospitalization for folks aged 65 and older.

When your heart is not working well, any of three main types of heart failure can manifest: right-sided (or right ventricular), left-sided (or left ventricular), and congestive heart failure.

There are also four different stages of heart failure, based on the severity of the condition:

Class 1 – You don't experience any symptoms during normal physical activity.

Class 2 – You're comfortable while resting, but your normal physical activity triggers symptoms.

Class 3 – You're comfortable when at rest, but minor physical activity triggers symptoms.

Class 4 – You're unable to carry out any physical activity without discomfort and may even experience symptoms while resting.

The symptoms of heart failure can develop either quickly or gradually, depending on the cause of the problem. Common signals include:

  • Swelling, especially in the feet, ankles, or abdomen
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Confusion

Sometimes, folks who have shortness of breath, coughing, or fatigue don't know that these are signs of heart failure. These warning signs get overlooked because many just associate them with getting older or other nonthreatening issues, like a cold.

The bottom line is, if you start feeling unusual, like you're not yourself, talk to your health care provider about getting checked for heart failure.

Some of the risk factors for heart failure include having had a heart attack in the past, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and an irregular heartbeat can also lead to heart failure.

Here's the good news... Despite its scary name, heart failure isn't necessarily a death sentence. If you stay vigilant when it comes to your heart health and take the right precautions, you can live in good health for years and years even after being diagnosed with this catastrophic-sounding condition.

Three Tips for Living With Heart Failure

1. Stay educated on the topic.

Learn everything you can about your specific type and stage of heart failure. Know what signals indicate a problem (i.e., swelling and unexplained weight gain). Become well-versed in how your doctor is planning to treat your disease. Ask question after question until there is absolutely no confusion or doubt in your mind. And make a plan for what to do if your symptoms change.

2. Take the right medication for you.

You will likely be prescribed some medications. Become the expert on them. Again, ask all the questions you might have. Figure out what the side effects are so that you can alert your doctor if you experience them. Your medications will likely change and become more fine-tuned, but don't stop taking them without discussing it with your trusted medical team first. (Emphasis on the word "trusted"... if you don't trust your doctor, it's time to find a better one.)

3. Don't go it alone.

Share your recovery and the plan for living your best life with your family and friends. Ask them to help you stay accountable. Maybe that means allowing your partner to remind you to make better food choices. Maybe that means making a deal with your neighbor to walk around the block every afternoon at 2 p.m. Whatever your plan is, don't go it alone. This is a lot to carry. You don't have to do it all yourself.

In the most recent issue of my Retirement Millionaire newsletter, I shared everything you need to know about heart failure, including how to know which type you have, why our hearts fail, and two more tips to help you survive heart failure.

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Editor's note: Our offices are closed for Good Friday tomorrow. Expect your next Health & Wealth Bulletin issue on Monday, April 10.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 6, 2023