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Heart Month (February)

February is National Heart Month. One condition of the heart that is not discussed as frequently, possibly because it has a scary name, is Heart Failure. It develops slowly as the heart muscle weakens and needs to work harder to keep blood flowing through the body. Heart failure is often not recognized until a more advanced stage of heart failure, commonly referred to as congestive heart failure, in which fluid may leak into the lungs, feet or legs. Heart failure is a condition that affects nearly 5 million Americans. Many people are not aware they have heart failure because the most common symptoms (feeling tired and shortness of breath) are often confused with normal signs of aging

Heart failure can develop over time as a result of coronary artery disease, previous heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung disease, alcohol or drug abuse, heart valve disease or infection, heart muscle disease or defects present at birth, abnormal heart rhythms, thyroid disorders, obesity and advanced aging.

Signs and symptoms of heart failure are shortness of breath, waking due to shortness of breath, frequent coughing or wheezing, bloating, swollen feet, legs, and ankles, need to urinate more often at night, sudden weight gain, nausea or loss of appetite, fatigue or weakness, confusion or decreased alertness, rapid or irregular heartbeat and swollen neck veins.

To be diagnosed with heart failure, your health care provider will take a thorough health history and perform a complete physical. Many tests exist that can help you provider decide if you do have heart failure. An echocardiogram, echo for short, is ordered and can tell the provider an ejection fraction, which is basically how much blood your heart pumps out with each heartbeat. Healthy hearts pump out 50% or more, where someone with heart failure may have 40% or less. Only your health care provider can determine if you have heart failure by interpreting this test, your health history and results of your physical.

Many people can live a healthy productive life with heart failure. Activities to help yourself:

  • Limiting your intake of salt is very important and you should learn what prepared foods have large amounts of salt.
  • It is important for you to weigh yourself each day and contact your healthcare provider if your weight changes significantly.
  • Exercising at levels recommended by your physician is of great importance in keeping you fit and well.
  • Taking your medications is also beneficial.
  • It is important for you to maintain frequent visits to your physician and notify him or her if there are any changes in your symptoms.
  • It is essential that both you and your family understand what heart failure is, what the symptoms are, what you should do if your symptoms change and how your doctor treats this disease.

For more information on Heart Failure, refer to the Heart Failure Society of America website at or call (301)-312-8635.

Article provided by Dana Breeding, RN Health Educator with Community Outreach.