Around 750,000 people across the country live with heart failure, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. And 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. With no cure available, knowledge and prevention are the best strategies to fight this disease. Yet 40 per cent of Canadians don’t understand what heart failure is, so we talked to an expert to get the facts.
Defining heart failure
Heart failure doesn’t mean that the heart has stopped working – it simply means the heart is not working as it should.
“It's a combination of things that lead to the heart failing to do its job of efficiently pumping blood or getting blood into its chambers and pumping it throughout the body,” says Alex Edye-Mazowita, disability case manager at Manitoba Blue Cross and CSEP Clinical Exercise Physiologist.
There are many ways a heart can fail – you can have constricted arteries, problems with your heart chambers or faulty valves. But ultimately, heart failure is when the blood isn’t getting to where it needs to go.
Risk factors for heart failure
Like many other conditions, lack of exercise, poor diet and use of alcohol or other drugs pose a risk for heart failure. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, other risk factors include:
- damage to the heart from a heart attack or coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
- heart valves that are not working properly by being too narrow or leaky (heart valve disease)
- infection causing inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis)
- being obese or overweight
- high blood cholesterol
- heart muscle disease of unknown causes
- other medical conditions such as thyroid diseases or anemia
Excessive sodium intake is an especially important risk factor, Edye-Mazowita says, noting that reducing sodium intake is often one of the first things a doctor recommends when dealing with heart failure. Reducing risk factors to prevent heart failure is important and many key risk factors can be lessened with regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Signs of heart failure
With the cardiovascular system being so vital, heart failure can have devastating effects on other bodily systems.
“If your kidneys don't have the fuel – blood – to properly get excess fluid out of the body, fluid buildup in your body is going to grow quite quickly,” says Edye-Mazowita.
This can lead to swelling in the calves, ankles and sometimes the abdomen. With swelling comes rapid weight gain – three pounds in a couple days, or five pounds in a week. This can be a tell-tale sign you need to seek medical attention.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, other symptoms include:
- increased shortness of breath, especially when lying flat
- bloating or feeling full all the time
- cough or cold symptoms that last for longer than a week
- tiredness, loss of energy or extreme tiredness
- loss of or change in appetite
- increased swelling of the ankles, feet, legs, sacrum (base of the spine) or abdomen (stomach area)
- increased urination at night
Heart failure is one of the top reasons Canadians are hospitalized, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. With one in five heart failure patients readmitted to hospital within a month of being discharged, the disease can have a significant impact on quality of life and healthcare capacity.
Living with heart failure
While there is no cure, proper symptom management can help prevent heart failure from decreasing your quality of life. Taking the steps to manage heart failure – or working to help prevent it from occurring in the first place – will go a long way to maintaining, or even improving, your health over time. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, many people with heart failure can live full and normal lives.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to heart failure, the strongest, evidence-backed recommendation is aerobic exercise, Edye-Mazowita says. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and improves circulation throughout the body, which helps reduce stress on the heart. However, some types of heart failure don’t see as significant a gain from exercise, meaning other forms of treatment will be required.
On top of lifestyle changes like healthy eating, treatment may include medications such as ACE inhibitors or beta blockers. Treatment may also require surgery or a device like a pacemaker to help your heart function properly.
To learn more, visit the Heart & Stroke Foundation.