An expert guide to heart failure


Dr Malgorzata Wamil, consultant cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Healthcare, explores the risk factors, symptoms and treatments of heart failure

Heart failure may seem like a disease of advanced age, but it can develop at any time in life. And, in many cases, it can be prevented or treated. In this expert guide, Dr Malgorzata Wamil, consultant cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Healthcare, explores the risk factors and symptoms that people may not be aware of, and explains how heart failure is treated.

Risk factors
Heart failure means that the heart is unable to pump blood as efficiently as it should. It is a result of the heart becoming too weak or too stiff. In heart failure, the heart can no longer keep up with the demands placed on it to pump blood to the rest of the body.

Coronary artery disease is the main cause of heart failure. Stiffening of the heart muscle is mostly a result of poorly controlled hypertension or diabetes. There are rarer causes of heart failure such as myocarditis, which can be caused by a viral infection, and cardiomyopathies, Dr Wamil says.

There are also lifestyle-related risk factors. “Maintaining a healthy diet, treating obesity, avoiding tobacco use and secondhand smoke, and avoiding alcohol can help prevent heart failure,” Dr Wamil explains.

Other risk factors for heart failure include sleep apnoea, some medications used to treat cancers, and viral infections that damage the heart muscle.

Dr Malgorzata Wamil of Mayo Clinic Healthcare

Dr Malgorzata Wamil of Mayo Clinic Healthcare

Some heart failure warning signs are intuitive, such as ankle swelling, breathlessness, chest pain, a heartbeat that feels rapid or irregular, and fatigue while exercising.

“There are other symptoms that people may not associate with heart failure,” Dr Wamil says. “Those include a persistent cough, abdominal swelling, rapid weight gain, nausea and a lack of appetite. People who experience any of these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider.”

It is important to identify the cause of heart failure because treatments may differ. In most cases heart failure cannot be cured, but the symptoms can often be controlled for many years.

“After heart failure is diagnosed, patients will need to manage the condition for the rest of their lives, usually through care at specialized heart failure clinics,” Dr Wamil says.

There are several treatment options. Those include medication, surgically implanted devices, and in advanced cases, heart transplant. Physicians and researchers are collaborating to discover new treatments.