Enhancing quality of life for congestive heart failure patients

Doctor examining patient

The term “heart failure” can be frightening — it implies that the heart is failing and death may be imminent. In reality, heart failure represents a chronic, long-term condition typically characterized by periods of stability and wellness and periods of coronary dysfunction that require medical intervention.

“Congestive heart failure (or CHF) refers to a buildup of fluid in the body as a result of a change in the normal structure or function of the heart,” says Dr. Craig Hametz, a cardiologist with NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor. Many factors can contribute to the condition, the most common being a weakness in the heart pump or squeeze function, abnormal relaxation of the heart, or leaky or tight heart valves. These abnormalities can be the result of problems originating in the heart itself, such as a heart attack or changes in heart rhythm, or it can be caused by non-cardiac problems such as kidney disease, lung disease, or infections that involve the heart muscle.

“To help patients understand the heart, I often suggest they think about it like their house,” says Dr. Hametz. “The heart has structure (the muscle pump and heart valves), plumbing (the coronary arteries), and an electrical system. Changes that affect any of these systems can impact overall function and result in congestive heart failure. Patients with chronic CHF can be at increased risk for filling up with fluid when they suffer from infections such as pneumonia, or even when they eat foods with too much salt causing their bodies to retain excess fluid.”

Living with CHF: how medical intervention can help

There are many treatment options for congestive heart failure that have proven to decrease symptoms, shorten hospital stays, and maintain stable fluid balance in the body.

“We fight congestive heart failure by attacking the disease on several fronts,” says Dr. Hametz. “First, we focus on treating the underlying process causing the heart dysfunction, such as opening up blocked arteries, fixing leaky or tight heart valves, treating underlying infections, and treating non-cardiac diseases that increase the risk for fluid retention in the body. Second, we use proven medical therapies that can strengthen weak heart muscles, and in some cases help restore and stabilize the pump function. Third, we focus on important diet and lifestyle changes. Finally, we identify those patients at risk for sudden cardiac death from weak heart muscles, to determine who may benefit from advanced device therapies such as special pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.”

Living with CHF: how you can help yourself

Restricting salt intake to help avoid body fluid overload is key to avoiding worsening symptoms of heart failure. Toward that end, patients should weigh themselves daily because a relatively quick increase in body weight can be a sign of increased fluid retention in the legs or lungs. “Addressing these issues early can be the difference between restoring the body fluid status to a stable state versus requiring hospitalization to remove extra fluid from the lungs, legs and abdomen, where it often collects,” notes Dr. Hametz. Some other helpful tips:

  • Exercise regularly: Begin an exercise program (with your doctor’s permission) that involves light aerobic activity and resistance training.
  • Eat a healthy diet:  One that’s low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking leads to clumping or stickiness in the blood vessels feeding the heart.
  • Manage stress: Take 15 to 20 minutes a day to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and relax your mind and body. Yoga or meditation classes may be helpful.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation only: No more than one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

 “Like many cardiac diseases, heart failure symptoms can be kept under control, allowing a person to maintain a good quality of life,” says Dr. Hametz. “A coordinated effort on the part of the patient, the doctor, and the family has an incredible impact on the progression and state of CHF. Long-term proven therapies as well as new and novel treatment regimens can enable patients with CHF to maintain a stable and active quality of life.”

To learn more about heart failure, visit nyp.org/heart. To find a cardiac specialist, call 877-697-9355.