It’s true that advanced heart failure can't be cured -- but it can be treated.
“There is so much you and your medical team can do to help you to have a longer, better life,” says Michael A. Mathier, MD, a cardiologist and the director of heart failure at the University of Pittsburgh.
Play an active part in your treatment because that can improve your symptoms. It can also help you feel more in control of your disease, which is caused by damage to the heart and develops over time.
Talk to Your Medical Team -- a Lot
“Your first step is making sure you understand what your exact heart condition is and how it affects you as an individual,” Mathier says.
It can be complicated, but your heart specialist should be able to explain it to you. He may also pair you with a nurse, nurse practitioner, dietitian, or palliative care specialist who can talk to you about your disease and how to best manage it.
You can always see another doctor if you feel rushed or aren’t getting the information you need.
And if your symptoms change, you feel something’s not quite right, or you have questions, don’t wait until your next appointment to talk to your doctor.
“There’s no detail that’s too small to mention,” says Ayesha Hasan, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of the cardiac transplant program at The Ohio State University. “Stress tests and other exams can tell your doctor how your heart is doing. But how you feel about day-to-day activities is key, too.
“If you can’t shower or get dressed or take a short walk without getting winded, your doctor should know.”
Make Lifestyle Changes
Some tweaks to your day-to-day routine can make a big difference. These are good places to start:
Get a handle on sodium. This is a biggie. You should have no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
Read labels on food, since that's as crucial as putting down the saltshaker.
“Seventy percent of most people’s sodium comes from pre-packaged food,” Hasan says.
Ask a dietitian for help if you’re not sure how to cut down how much salt you get.
Eat more whole foods. Frozen or fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains that aren’t processed much (like oatmeal and brown rice), and lean, unprocessed protein like chicken breasts are all good choices. They’re nutritious and can help you reach and stay at a healthy weight.
Plus, they have little to no sodium.
Stay active. Having heart failure doesn’t mean that you should sit and do nothing. Just the opposite.
“Your heart is a muscle, and using it during physical activity keeps it strong, even if you have heart failure,” Hasan says. Even several 5- to 10-minute walks throughout the day or pastimes like gardening can help your ticker and give you more energy.
Take care of yourself. That means:
- Get plenty of good sleep.
- Keep stress at bay.
- Watch how much liquid you drink each day.
Mind Your Medications
It’s crucial for you to take all the medicine your doctor prescribed, even when you feel good. Meds for heart failure can help you live longer, and they may even save your life.
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about any of the medicine you’ve been prescribed.
Research shows that some over-the-counter supplements, like coQ10 and D-ribose, may also improve your symptoms. But it's important to let your doctor know if you take these or think you might want to try them.
Advanced heart failure is a condition you’ll live with for the rest of your life.
“That’s why many doctors, myself included, talk to patients about devices like defibrillators and even transplant surgery during the first appointment,” Mathier says. “It’s good to know what all your options are and at what point you might consider them.”
Some choices your doctor might tell you about include:
A pacemaker. This device is implanted in your chest to treat an abnormal heart rhythm. It uses electrical pulses to help your heart beat more regularly.
An implantable defibrillator. These devices are surgically placed in your chest. They deliver an electric “shock” to your heart if you have a life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm.
A left ventricular assist device (LVAD). This implanted mechanical pump helps your heart send blood through your body.
A heart transplant. This is when your heart is replaced with a healthy one. Transplants are usually only done for severe, progressive heart failure.
If you're considering any of these options, you might want to talk to a patient who’s had the same treatment. You can find one through your doctor or through a support group for people with advanced heart disease.