Heart failure can affect men and women at any age, but new treatments and healthy habits are helping patients live well.
About 10 years ago, Kevin Lobo was walking his dog when his foot started swelling and his heartbeat rapidly sped up. After a friend rushed him to hospital, Lobo was diagnosed with heart failure.
“I didn’t even know what heart failure was,” Lobo says. “I was in my mid-forties. I was very fit. I would cycle up to 100 kilometres a day. I boxed and played soccer. I was absolutely terrified. But the doctors and nurses were amazing and every day you get stronger.”
Heart failure is a condition caused by the heart not functioning as it should or a problem with its structure. This can lead to fatigue, fluid build-up, which in turn leads to shortness of breath, tiredness, coughing, and swelling in the legs, ankles, or abdomen. Sometimes the fluid in the lungs can accumulate to the point where it can cause a life-threatening condition called acute pulmonary edema.
About 750,000 Canadians live with heart failure and it’s a leading cause of hospitalization.
“Many people don’t realize the seriousness of heart failure,” says Dr. Stephanie Poon, a cardiologist at Sunnybrook Hospital. “The mortality rate is higher than breast cancer in women and higher than prostate cancer in men.”
There have been so many huge advances in recent years in the world of heart failure that it has really been an exciting time for all of us who specialize in this area.
Risk factors include smoking and family history
Heart failure can affect men and women of all ages. The most common cause is damage to the heart muscle caused by a heart attack. Other causes include high blood pressure, viral infections, diabetes, valve disease, abnormal heart rhythms, and congenital heart disease. Risk factors for heart attacks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and a family history of the disease.
“One of the common myths we’re trying to break is that this is just a disease you get when you’re older,” says Dr. Poon. “There are actually a lot of younger people who have heart failure.”
Since his diagnosis, Lobo has been monitored regularly and is on medication. He’s also more mindful of making balanced eating and physical activity choices to promote his overall health, like eating more vegetables and decreasing his portion sizes, as well as exercising regularly.
Dr. Poon says that she teaches patients with heart failure to restrict their fluid and sodium intake, exercise regularly, stop smoking, and monitor for symptoms. She notes that anyone at risk for heart failure should discuss it with their health care provider, watch for signs of the disease, and follow healthy habits like exercising, quitting smoking, and eating nutritious foods.
Advances providing new class of treatment options
As for medical treatment, Dr. Poon explains that some people with heart failure have a weak heart that cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body. “If you have a weak heart, there are many different classes of medications that have been shown in clinical trials to help you live longer and keep you out of the hospital from heart failure, and a few of them can also help the heart get stronger,” she says.
In the other type of heart failure, the heart is strong but stiffer than normal. Because of this, the ventricles can’t relax and fill properly, which results in less blood being pumped to the rest of the body.
“There have been so many huge advances in recent years in the world of heart failure that it has really been an exciting time for all of us who specialize in this area,” Dr. Poon says. “I tell patients that we have a lot of effective medications and, along with lifestyle changes, I have patients who forget they even have heart failure because their quality of life is pretty much back to where it used to be.”
Lobo agrees. He suggests that other patients with heart failure learn as much as they can. “You’re not the first one going through this,” he says. “Talk to your health care provider. Join a support group. Understand everything you can and then make the changes you need to. Don’t be afraid. You’re not alone.”
This article was made possible with the support from an alliance of two of Canada’s leading research-based pharmaceutical companies.