By Marilyn A. Prasun, PhD, as told to Hope Cristol
I’ve worked to educate people about heart failure throughout my career as an advanced practice nurse practitioner, professor, and researcher. One of the major things I try to teach is the importance of seeing a doctor when you sense changes in your health.
There’s been so much progress with treatment and management of heart failure. But many people with heart failure symptoms wait longer than they should to get medical attention. I believe this is because the symptoms, such as shortness of breath and a decline in energy and endurance, happen gradually and are subtle. We often associate them with normal aging, so it’s easy to write them off: “Well, I’m getting older, that’s why I can’t walk or exercise like I used to.”
Common Paths to Heart Failure
While heart failure happens most often to older people, it’s not a normal part of the aging process. In fact, heart failure often stems from long-term high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. Those also aren't normal parts of aging.
It’s important to know whether you have those or other health conditions that play a role in your heart failure. If you can address them, you’ll improve your health overall. Once you know more about the path that brought you to a heart failure diagnosis, you can also begin appropriate treatments.
In addition to medications and possibly device therapy, you most likely will need to make major changes to your diet and lifestyle. That can bring new challenges.
Relationships May Change
It takes a lot of commitment to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, and it’s not always easy -- especially if you’re used to eating high-fat or salty foods. Often, a support system can make smart choices easier. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the support they need from the people around them. If your loved ones aren’t as understanding or encouraging as you need, you may want to consider finding other ways to get that support, such as from connections with other people living with heart failure.
This condition can change the dynamic of your relationships in a way that normal aging doesn’t. Because it’s an invisible disease and often poorly understood, your friends and family may not know what to make of your diagnosis. They may not understand your need to rest more often or why you need to make major changes to your lifestyle.
Also, when your loved ones hear the term heart failure, they can become very fearful. Or they can become overprotective in a way that could create problems, like if they try to limit your physical activity because of their own fears.
You Can Thrive
Sitting in a chair all day isn’t what people with heart failure need, and fear and anxiety isn’t what we want for their caregivers. That’s why patient and caregiver education has always been such a priority for me. There are many resources to help people manage all the ups and downs of life with heart failure, including support groups in person and online.
The advances I’ve seen in recent years have given me tremendous hope that people have the ability to lead long, full lives. It really requires commitment or, if you look at it another way, an unwillingness to let heart failure control your life.
You know, a lot of heart failure advice involves how to manage it after diagnosis. But really, the best treatment is prevention with a heart-healthy lifestyle. You can commit to healthy habits at any stage of life, but starting early can have a tremendous impact as we age. So many health problems can be prevented that way as well, including the heart conditions that can ultimately lead to heart failure.