Triumph over congestive heart failure


You’ve heard the old saying “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When you have congestive heart failure, your weakened heart may keep trying, but it just can’t pump enough blood to the rest of your body.

A healthy heart pumps at least 50 percent of the blood it receives in one beat, while a failing heart can manage only 40 percent or less. This leads to a dangerous double whammy. Not only does your body not get the blood it needs, but excess fluid can also build up in your lungs and other parts of your body.

Fluid in your lungs is called “congestion,” the term that gives congestive heart failure its name. This dangerous condition can lead to disability and even death. In fact, congestive heart failure or its complications account for 20 percent of hospitalizations and almost half the deaths of people over age 65 in the United States.

Spot the signs

Often, sudden weight gain signals the first sign of congestive heart failure. The accumulation of fluid in your feet, ankles, and legs causes you to put on extra pounds. You may also feel extremely tired and out of breath when doing everyday activities, like climbing stairs, walking, or even eating.

As fluid builds up in your lungs, you may experience shortness of breath or wake up in the middle of the night with a choking feeling. To prevent that, you may have to sleep with your head propped up with several pillows rather than lying flat. You could also develop a chronic cough, which may include mucus or blood.


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Consider the causes

Unlike many conditions, congestive heart failure doesn’t have one easily pinpointed cause. A variety of factors could play a role in its development.

Heart failure can strike at any age, but it’s much more common in people age 65 or older because your heart becomes weaker and your blood vessels become narrower as you age. Along with older people, black people and men are also more likely to have congestive heart failure.

Sometimes, specific physical defects in your heart cause the problem. Abnormal openings between the left and right chambers of your heart or a defective valve that lets blood leak back into your heart could be to blame.

High blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder, and coronary artery disease, which causes blood vessels to become narrow and clogged, can also contribute to heart failure.

Heart attacks can also lead to heart failure. After a heart attack, a section of your heart may no longer work, causing your heart to pump less. On the other hand, heart failure also increases your risk for a heart attack.

An infection or inflammation can also weaken your heart. This condition is known as cardiomyopathy. Other possible causes of heart failure include diabetes, cancer treatment, thyroid diseases, alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, and HIV/AIDS.

Treatment tips

While congestive heart failure can be deadly, fortunately, it can also be treated. It’s important to work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.

In some cases, surgery can correct the problem causing your heart failure. Closing a hole between your heart’s chambers, replacing a defective valve, or opening or bypassing a blocked coronary artery could do the trick. But most of the time, you can manage congestive heart failure with a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Drug decisions

Your doctor may try a few medications before finding the right combination or dosage. Be patient, as it could take days or weeks to notice any improvement.

  • Vasodilators relax, or dilate, blood vessels to make it easier for your heart to pump.
  • Diuretics help remove excess fluids and salt from your body.
  • Angiotensin-converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors keep the body from making a hormone called angiotensin II, which can narrow the arteries.
  • Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARBs) prevent the angiotensin II hormone from affecting the heart and blood vessels.
  • Beta-blockers help make the heart beat more slowly, resulting in the heart pumping less blood.
  • Calcium Channel Blockers help blood vessels to relax by preventing calcium from entering the muscle cells of the heart and blood vessels.
  • Digitalis helps strengthen your heartbeat, allowing your heart to pump more blood.

Each of these drugs comes with possible side effects, including dizziness, lightheadedness, skin rash, leg cramps, gout, nausea, blurred vision, confusion, fast heartbeat, and loss of appetite. Always take your medication exactly as prescribed and report any side effects immediately. For severe heart failure, you may need intravenous (IV) drugs, which can be given continuously or a few times a week.

Change for the better

Controlling congestive heart failure begins with lifestyle changes. Even if you take medication to keep your congestive heart failure under control, you still need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Follow these 10 simple steps to control — or prevent — congestive heart failure.

  • Cut back on salt, which causes fluids to build up in your body.
  • Be physically active. Just make sure you stay within your limits.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in fiber and low in fat.
  • Check your blood pressure regularly and keep it under control.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Check your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
  • Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. Limit yourself to one drink per day at the most.
  • Get enough sleep at night and rest frequently.
  • Find ways to cope with the stress in your life. Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine can have a negative impact on heart health.

5 simple ways to fight back

Congestive heart failure has a big impact on health care costs and quality of life — so every little edge you can find makes a big difference.

Some key nutrients and supplements have shown promise in the battle against heart failure. Here’s a quick look at them.

1.  Coenzyme Q10

Commonly known as CoQ10, this popular vitamin-like supplement may help improve symptoms of congestive heart failure. Besides having antioxidant powers, CoQ10 may strengthen your heartbeat to boost output. It also works on the mitochondria, your cells’ power sources, to improve energy production in your heart tissue.

One study found that CoQ10 treatment improved left ventricular function in people with congestive heart failure. Remember, your left ventricle pumps blood to the rest of your body.

A recent meta-analysis, or examination of several studies, found that CoQ10 helped boost ejection fraction, or the percentage of blood pumped in one beat. However, it was less effective in more severe cases of heart failure and when used with other drug treatments.

Other studies found no benefit for CoQ10 treatment, so the jury is still out on this promising supplement. But future studies should shed more light on the role of CoQ10 in treating heart failure.

2.  Fish oil

Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fatty fish, have many benefits for your heart. If you have congestive heart failure, they may be especially helpful. Fish oil fights inflammation and improves body weight in people with advanced heart failure. It may also prevent sudden death in people with heart failure by blocking the triggering of arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.

3.  Resveratrol

Found in grapes and red wine, this polyphenol — or plant chemical — has several heart-healthy properties. A blocked coronary artery can reduce the blood supply to the heart muscle, leading to heart failure. In one recent study, resveratrol helped spur the growth of new blood vessels in rats three weeks after a heart attack. These new vessels help keep blood flowing to the heart in spite of a blocked artery. Resveratrol also improved the rats’ left ventricular function, which is key to pumping blood to the rest of the body.

4.  Vitamins

You already know it’s important to get enough vitamins, but some may be even more important when it comes to fighting heart failure. For instance, vitamin D reduces inflammation in people with congestive heart failure. That’s important because inflammation can tax your heart, forcing it to work harder to pump blood.

Vitamin C improves flow-dependent dilation, making it easier for blood to travel through your blood vessels. As an antioxidant, vitamin C works by protecting nitric oxide, which relaxes and dilates your blood vessels, from damaging free radicals.

Yet, not all vitamins help. One large study found that vitamin E offers no help for congestive heart failure. In fact, taking vitamin E supplements may even increase your risk for heart failure if you have diabetes or heart disease.

5.  Curcumin

This polyphenol, found in the curry spice turmeric, may help prevent or reverse heart enlargement, a precursor to heart failure. Curcumin may also prevent heart disease and fight high cholesterol. It does this by strengthening blood vessel walls, keeping blood cells from clumping together, and stopping extra LDL cholesterol — the “bad” kind — from forming. Experts think curcumin may work even better than some other powerful plant protectors, like quercetin from apples and onions.



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  • FC&A Staff Writer