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Heart Failure Health Center

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Heart Failure Overview

Heart failure affects about 5 million Americans. Roughly 550,000 people are diagnosed with heart failure each year. It is the leading cause of hospitalization in people older than 65.

What Is Heart Failure?

Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working. Rather, it means that the heart's pumping power is less effective than normal. With heart failure, blood moves through the heart and body at a slower rate, and pressure in the heart increases. As a result, the heart cannot pump enough blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to meet the body's needs. The chambers of the heart may respond by stretching to carry more blood to pump through the body or by becoming more stiff and thickened. This helps to keep the blood moving for a while, but in time, the heart muscle walls may weaken and are unable to pump as strongly. As a result, the kidneys respond by causing the body to retain fluid (water) and sodium. If fluid builds up in the arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs, or other organs, the body becomes congested, and congestive heart failure is the term used to describe the condition.

What Causes Heart Failure?

Heart failure is caused by many conditions that damage the heart muscle, including:

  • Coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease (CAD), a disease of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart, causes decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. If the arteries become blocked or severely narrowed, the heart becomes starved for oxygen and nutrients.
  • Heart attack. A heart attack may occur when a coronary artery becomes suddenly blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart muscle and damaging it. All or part of the heart muscle becomes cut off from its supply of oxygen. A heart attack can damage the heart muscle, resulting in a scarred area that does not function properly.
  • Cardiomyopathy. Damage to the heart muscle. Causes include artery or blood flow problems, infections, and alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Conditions that overwork the heart. Conditions including high blood pressure, heart valve disease, thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or heart defects present at birth can all cause heart failure. In addition, heart failure can occur when several diseases or conditions are present at once.

 

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