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Underlying Cause of Heart Failure Predicts Survival

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April 12, 2000 (Tampa) -- Whatever causes your heart muscle to weaken and fail also predicts how long you will live, according to a recent study. And if doctors can predict who will live longer, they will be better able to determine who among those waiting for a heart transplant needs a heart the most.

Heart failure is when the heart muscle doesn't pump as well as it should, causing sufferers to feel weak, tired, or short of breath, especially with exercise or even modest activity.

"For years, patients with unexplained heart failure have been lumped together with the nonspecific diagnosis of 'cardiomyopathy,'" researcher Ralph H. Hruban, MD, professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tells WebMD. But patients with this diagnosis had widely varying survival rates.

A study of more than 1,000 patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital found that the underlying cause of heart muscle disease causing failure helps predict how long patients will live. The study was reported in the April 13 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"This study helps us ... to make end-of-life decisions, and to determine the need to transplant and when," researcher Edward K. Kasper, MD, tells WebMD. He is associate professor of medicine and director of the cardiomyopathy and heart transplant service at Johns Hopkins. "If the patient has a type of cardiomyopathy associated with [poor survival], I would counsel them to get their affairs in order, and [they] might also be more likely candidates for transplant."

The study showed that five years after diagnosis, three-quarters of these patients with heart failure caused by unknown reasons were still alive, as were three-quarters of patients with heart failure caused by lack of oxygen to the heart muscle. The majority of patients with heart failure related to pregnancy were still alive five years after diagnosis.

Patients with poor survival rates included those who had heart failure as a result of HIV, heart infections, or undergoing chemotherapy. Less than half of these patients were still alive after five years.

"This exciting study [shows] that a heart biopsy, which is safe at specialized centers such as Johns Hopkins, can help classify patients with cardiomyopathy into clinically important groups," Hruban tells WebMD. Even after biopsy, or surgical removal and microscopic examination of a small piece of heart muscle, no definite diagnosis could be made in half the patients.

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