What does Heart Failure Mean?

It is important to understand what heart failure is, and what it is not.

ByMaureen Hummel, CRNP, Abington Hospital, Jefferson Health WPVI logo
Friday, February 5, 2021

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Heart failure (HF) is a very common disorder, yet it lags behind other forms of heart disease in terms of improvements in patient outcomes and prevention efforts.

Though the name suggests it, heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped working.

It is important to understand what heart failure is not, as it is often confused with other heart conditions. Heart failure is not a "heart attack", which occurs due to plaque buildup and abnormal blood clots in the arteries that feed the heart cause an abrupt interruption of circulation to the heart muscle, damaging it.

Heart failure is also not a "cardiac arrest", which is an electrical abnormality causing life-threatening heart rhythm disturbance leading to death if CPR and electrical defibrillation are not provided.

Heart failure, rather, is the condition in which the heart is unable to adequately circulate oxygen-rich blood to the body, which needs a constant, uninterrupted supply.

This condition can occur when the heart muscle is too weak to pump blood forward or is too stiff to relax well enough to allow blood to reenter the heart after circulating throughout the body. Heart Failure occurs fairly equally in both males and females and in all age groups, although the risk increases with age.

At times, this condition can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF) where the body retains too much fluid for the heart to circulate efficiently and leads to fluid buildup in the lungs, abdomen and extremities.

This buildup causes shortness of breath, difficulty breathing when lying down, and swelling in the abdomen and legs.

CHF generally leads to hospitalization and represents the most common reason Medicare patients are hospitalized in the U.S.

In rare circumstances, the heart can become so weak that it cannot provide adequate circulation without advanced therapies like special intravenous medications called inotropes.

At this stage, advanced treatments, such as a heart transplant or a special heart pump called an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) are required.

Two common causes of heart failure are a prior heart attack or uncontrolled hypertension. Other causes include viruses, conditions like amyloidosis (a rare buildup of a protein that interferes with organ function) or sarcoidosis (an inflammatory disease that affects the body's organs), sleep apnea, and toxins, like alcohol and illicit drugs.

In rare cases, heart failure is due to genetic factors.

There is good news, however. Significant progress has been made in the treatment of heart failure.

Today, the subspecialty of Heart Failure Cardiology has been recognized - and a board certification now exists that is granted to cardiologists who have undergone rigorous training, developing high levels of expertise in treating patients with this disorder.

Heart failure is managed best by an expert team of physicians, advanced practice providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare providers who specialize in heart failure management.

Prevention is always the best strategy, so adopt healthy lifestyles, get regular exercise, know your family history and seek medical attention when symptoms develop. It could save your life.

For information about the Heart Care and the Heart Failure Program at Jefferson Health, visit JeffersonHealth.org/Heart