Heart Failure

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Heart failure is a condition in which the heart muscle grows progressively weaker and cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs for oxygen and nutrients. Many people confuse heart failure with sudden cardiac death, where the heart stops abruptly, without warning signs or symptoms. In heart failure, in contrast, the heart gradually weakens but continues to beat, if ineffectively.

As heart failure progresses, blood backs up into the vessels around the lungs. This causes fluid to seep into the respiratory tract, congesting the lungs and making breathing difficult. (Thus, heart failure is sometimes called congestive heart failure.) Other symptoms of heart failure are fatigue, swelling of the legs, rapid weight gain, loss of appetite, abdominal bloating, and difficulty sleeping. Heart failure also compromises the function of other organs, such at the kidneys, which may ultimately fail because of insufficient blood flow.

Causes of Heart Failure

Heart failure can result from a variety of conditions. The most common cause is a heart attack (myocardial infarction) that damages the myocardium (heart muscle). Heart failure can also stem from problems with the heart's valves, rheumatic heart disease, bacterial infections, and congenital defects. Other causes of heart failure include abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), diseases of the heart muscle (collectively known as cardiomyopathies), high blood pressure, and diseases involving other organs.

More than five million Americans suffer from heart failure. About 550,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Until recently, relatively little could be done for people with this condition. Today, however, there are many effective therapies — from medicines to devices to surgery — that can substantially improve and extend the lives of those with failing hearts.

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