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Heart Disease…Heart failure. What is the Difference?

October 13, 2021

Heart disease affects a tremendous number of people in the United States. 11.7% of American adults (more than one of every ten) have been diagnosed with heart disease. It is also the leading cause of death in the United States. Almost half of Americans are at risk for heart disease, and the numbers are rising. Heart disease is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of heart conditions, one of which is heart failure. Research suggests roughly 6.2 million U.S. adults have heart failure. While heart disease is a wide category, several elements of it impact heart failure. 

In a nutshell, heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions while heart failure is a form of heard disease. Each type of heart disease is caused by something unique to that condition. The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease CAD), which affects the blood flow to the heart and is at the root of heart failure. 

Several risk factors increase your chances of developing heart disease. These include whether you smoke, have high blood pressure or have high cholesterol. Diet and the amount of exercise you get can also factor in. Other risk factors, such as family history, sex, ethnicity and age, can’t be changed. Anyone, including children, can develop heart disease. Some people are even born with it. Diagnosing heart disease involves a physician utilizing several tests such as chest x-rays, coronary angiograms, electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) and exercise stress tests. Sometimes heart disease may be “silent” and not diagnosed until a person experiences signs or symptoms of heart conditions such as a heart attack, heart failure or arrhythmia. The symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease. For many people, chest discomfort or a heart attack is the first sign. 

Heart failure, or congestive heart failure, is a heart condition in which the heart cannot pump sufficient blood around the body. This may be due to the heart not filling with enough blood or it is too weak to pump correctly. Despite the name, it does not refer to the heart stopping. 

Heart failure usually develops gradually. The heart muscle becomes weaker and has trouble pumping blood to nourish the cells in your body. It is a chronic condition that gradually gets worse. Sometimes, heart failure comes on suddenly after a heart attack as it weakens the heart’s pumping ability. In acute heart failure, the symptoms are usually severe at first. Heart failure symptoms may include coughing up white, pink, or foamy mucus, fatigue and weakness, irregular heartbeat, nausea, lack of appetite, shortness of breath when lying down or exerting energy or fluid retention in the abdomen or extremities. Symptoms may come and go, or they may persist over a period. If new symptoms develop or existing symptoms worsen, it may mean that heart failure is getting worse or that treatment isn’t effective.

If you have heart failure, your doctor may recommend treatment with medications, physical therapy or surgery. As heart failure gets worse, you may need surgery to get a device that will help your heart. For very advanced heart failure, you may need a pump to keep your heart working. In severe cases, a heart transplant may be possible.

Healthy lifestyle choices can help you prevent heart disease and, in turn, heart failure. They can also help you treat the condition and prevent it from getting worse. Your diet is one of the first areas that needs to change. Likewise, getting regular exercise, quitting tobacco and reducing alcohol consumption can help.  As simple as it sounds, managing stress can also lower your risk for heart disease.

Heart disease can’t be cured or reversed. It requires a lifetime of treatment and careful monitoring. Many of the symptoms of heart disease can be relieved with medications, procedures, and lifestyle changes. Treatment for heart disease largely depends on the type of heart disease you have as well as how far it has advanced. The diagnosis of heart disease or heart failure can both be frightening. If you have any symptoms, seek medical attention. Working quickly with your healthcare team can help you prevent complications and learn lifestyle changes to help your heart stay healthy.

If you are worried about your risk for heart disease, West Tennessee Medical Group’s cardiologist can help. Click here for more information on clinic hours, location and to schedule an appointment.