The name "heart failure" couldn't sound bleaker, and anyone who lives with it knows it is a frightening and serious medical condition. The physical symptoms of heart failure, combined with the depression and anxiety that it can sometimes provoke, may make you feel weak and vulnerable, as if you've lost control of your life.
Doctors diagnose heart failure by taking a medical history and conducting a physical exam and tests.
During the medical history your doctor will want to know if:
You have any other health problems such as diabetes, kidney disease, angina (chest pain), high blood pressure, or other heart problems
You drink alcohol, and if so, how much
You are taking medications.
During the physical, the doctor will check your blood pressure, use a stethoscope to hear sounds associated...
But as debilitating as heart failure can be, there is still a great deal that you can do to improve your condition. And specialists stress that management provides so much hope for your future.
"Taking control can make people with heart failure feel better," says Susan J. Bennett, DNS, RN, a professor at the Indiana University nursing school who has extensively studied the quality of life in patients with heart failure. "It feels good to be doing something positive, and there's evidence to suggest that it really can help your emotional state."
Taking control of your treatment will help more than your state of mind. By being on top of your condition -- learning about heart failure, following your doctor's recommendations, taking your medications, eating well and even exercising -- you may also greatly improve your prognosis.
Good nutrition is an important aspect of controlling heart failure. Obesity is a major contributor to the condition, and eating a diet low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables is important. In general, you also should limit the amount of alcohol and caffeine that you take in.
Experts also agree that people with heart failure should follow a low-sodium diet. But how low? Bennett observes there are problems with eating a diet too low in sodium and there are other factors to consider.
"One thing that's clear from my work is that food just doesn't taste as good when you're eating a low-sodium diet," Bennett tells WebMD. Because of this, it's a diet that's not only difficult to stick to, but also one that may contribute to nutritional problems.
"The low-sodium diet sometimes causes people to reduce their caloric and nutritional intake," says Bennett. "When you start trying to follow a 2-gram sodium diet, there are a lot of foods that you may not be able to eat. Also, foods high in protein also may be high in sodium, so when you reduce salt, you also reduce protein."
A deficiency in protein can lead to unhealthy weight loss and muscle wasting, which are serious -- and often underestimated -- symptoms of heart failure. For example, in one study testing implanted left ventricular assist devices -- machines that increase the pumping power of the heart -- one of the most common and somewhat unexpected complications after surgery was the result of preexisting nutritional problems.
"Heart-failure patients seem to be nutritionally out of balance," says John Watson, MD, director of the clinical and molecular medicine program in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Division of Heart and Vascular Diseases. Watson believes nutrition is an important issue to address, especially for those about to undergo major surgery.
"I think that we need to be looking at a bigger picture of adequate nutrition and there's still a lot we don't know," says Bennett. For now, she recommends a diet that restricts sodium but also follows basic nutritional advice. You should talk with your doctor, nurse, or dietitian about what sort of diet and sodium restrictions make sense in your case.