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Sharp Health News

How to treat a failing heart

Feb. 2, 2018

How to treat a failing heart

Your heart is a pump. Normally, it’s a highly efficient machine sending blood out to the body and bringing it back to distribute again. But when that pump is faulty, the whole system backs up. Fluid accumulates in the legs and lungs, triggering shortness of breath, weight gain and difficulty breathing while laying down.

Together, these symptoms point to heart failure, a dangerous but highly treatable cardiac condition that affects more than 5 million Americans. Many patients overlook these symptoms or seek treatment for other conditions, such as bronchitis or other pulmonary issues. Delay in treatment for heart failure places additional stress on the heart and other organs that work much harder to compensate for the failing heart. Left untreated, heart failure can lead to systemic organ failure and even death.

Who is at greatest risk for heart failure
Although heart failure is highly treatable, the rate of new diagnosis continues to climb, driven by increasing rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The American Heart Association anticipates a 46 percent increase in new cases by 2030.

“It’s a 21st-century epidemic,” says Dr. Peter Hoagland, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation for Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Although survival rates are dramatically higher than they were 30 years ago, we are still seeing an increase in new patients.”

Lowering rates of diabetes and hypertension will drive down the rate of new heart failure cases, he says.

Prevention efforts include:

  • Eating a healthy diet that is low in salt and fat
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting daily exercise
  • Not smoking

Symptoms of heart failure
If you experience these symptoms together, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor:

  • Unexplained shortness of breath during daily activities
  • Having trouble breathing when lying down
  • Weight gain with swelling in the feet, legs, ankles or stomach
  • General weakness or fatigue

Treatment for heart failure
Your primary care doctor can listen to your symptoms and test your blood for the two hormones created by a failing heart. If your rate of these hormones is dramatically elevated, your doctor will begin treatment for heart failure.

“There are two forms of treatment,” says Dr. Hoagland. “Beginning a diuretic drug to reduce fluid levels helps you feel better but doesn’t treat the underlying problem. The real revolution in treatment of heart failure is the discovery that when you have heart failure, certain hormones turn on in ways that damage the heart. If we can give you medication to block those hormones, your heart feels better and you live longer. In the past few years, we have found more medicines that do that. We’ve found that we can help people with heart failure live longer and feel better, and that their hearts can actually do better.”

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Hoagland about heart failure for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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