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What is Heart Failure?

Heart Failure

The term "heart failure" can be frightening. It does not mean the heart has "failed" or stopped working. It means the heart does not pump as well as it should.

Heart failure is a major health problem in the United States, affecting about 5.7 million Americans. About 550,000 new cases of heart failure occur each year. It is the leading cause of hospitalization in people older than 65.

If you have heart failure, you will enjoy better health and quality of life if you take care of yourself and keep yourself in balance. It is important to learn about heart failure, how to keep in good balance, and when to call the doctor.

Women and heart failure

Heart failure affects about 2.5 million women in the United States. Women tend to develop heart failure with preserved left ventricular function and with a more normal EF than men. Heart failure in women is often linked to high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, valve disease and diabetes.

The signs and symptoms of heart failure are the same among men and women, but women tend to experience lower exercise ability and shortness of breath than do men. Women also have ankle swelling more frequently. In general, women with heart failure live longer than men with heart failure.

What is the outlook?

With the right care, heart failure will not stop you from doing the things you enjoy. Your prognosis, or outlook for the future, will depend on how well your heart muscle is working, your symptoms and how well you respond to and follow your treatment plan.

Patients with a long-term illness, such as heart failure, should talk to their doctor and their family about their desires for extended medical care. An “advance directive” or “living will” is one way to let everyone know your wishes. A living will includes your desires about the use of medical treatments to prolong your life. This document is prepared while you are well, in case you are unable to make these decisions at a later time.

When talking to your doctor about heart failure, you may hear these terms used:

  • Ejection fraction (EF): a measurement of the amount of blood pumped out of the left ventricle with each heartbeat. In a normal person, the ejection fraction equals about 55 percent or more. If someone has systolic heart failure, the ejection fraction will equal about 20 to 40 percent, or even less.
  • Ventricular remodeling: the changes that occur to the heart’s pumping chamber (ventricle) when someone has heart failure. The inside of the left ventricle gets bigger during heart failure, the walls become thicker and the heart changes shape (becoming more round rather than pear-shaped). These changes worsen the heart’s ability to pump blood, stress the heart and may cause the mitral valve to leak.
  • Systolic heart failure (systolic dysfunction): occurs when the heart muscle does not contract with enough force, so there is not enough oxygen-rich blood pumped throughout the body. An ejection fraction less than 40 percent indicates systolic heart failure.
  • Diastolic heart failure (diastolic dysfunction or heart failure with preserved left ventricular function): occurs when the heart contracts normally (a normal ejection fraction) but the ventricle does not relax or fill properly or is stiff, and less blood enters the heart during normal filling.

The George M. and Linda H. Kaufman Center for Heart Failure: The mission of the Kaufman Center is to bring together a team of experts from medicine, surgery, and basic science research to focus their attention on the diagnosis and treatment of heart failure.

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This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

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