What Is Cardiac Cachexia?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on September 04, 2023
3 min read

Cardiac cachexia is a condition that can happen to people who have heart failure. It means you lose a serious amount of body fat, muscle, and bone. Doctors often call this “body wasting.”

Once it begins, you can’t reverse it simply by eating more. It’s a complex disorder that has to do with the way your body absorbs and uses the nutrients and calories you eat.

The main symptom of cardiac cachexia is weight loss. You may also feel:

  • Very weak and tired
  • Short of breath
  • Unable to exercise or be active
  • Nauseated
  • Not very hungry
  • Constipation
  • Changes in how food tastes

Some of these symptoms make you more likely to lose even more weight.

The condition also has serious effects on many parts of the body, including the digestive tract, lungs, and heart, and the body’s ability to make blood cells.

Doctors are not exactly sure what causes cardiac cachexia. It involves many different body systems. Some experts think it may happen when there’s an imbalance in the way your body’s nervous system tells your digestive tract how to break down food.

But scientists know a few things about how the condition affects the body and causes symptoms:

  • Fluid buildup from congestive heart failure can sometimes make it harder to absorb nutrients from food.
  • Malnutrition keeps the liver from making a protein called albumin, which helps the blood carry important chemicals throughout your body.
  • The condition makes your body use more energy to do basic things, like breathing. So you burn more calories, but at the same time, you can’t absorb them from food.
  • Your body breaks down muscle proteins. That leads to symptoms like fatigue.
  • The condition causes a problem with some of the hormones your body uses to control blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • It also increases inflammation and chemicals in your blood that can cause muscle breakdown.

There’s no specific test that can diagnose cardiac cachexia. In most cases, doctors will try to rule out other health problems that may be causing your weight loss.

If you’ve lost more than 5% of your body weight in 6 months without trying, your doctor may test your blood to look for substances linked to cardiac cachexia, like the protein albumin.

Keep in mind that sometimes it’s hard to notice that a person with heart failure has lost weight. A failing heart makes the body retain water and swell. That can increase your body weight and make you look like you have body fat when you don’t. Your doctor can use other tests to figure out if you’ve lost muscle mass, including measuring how well you do physical activities like walking or how strong your grip is.

There are no specific medicines that treat cardiac cachexia. Your doctor will continue to treat your heart failure and try to improve your symptoms. You may get medicines to get rid of the extra fluid that makes you swell. Other treatments may be:

  • Exercise training to build muscle mass or strengthen existing muscles
  • Teaching you how to eat right for your condition
  • Supplements of important nutrients, like vitamins C and D and folate
  • Medicines to make you feel hungrier