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Heart Health

What Is Congestive Heart Failure? Knowing the Symptoms Can Improve a Life

You thought the symptoms your loved one was exhibiting were simply signs of aging. Fatigue. Change in heart rate. Persistent coughing or wheezing. Occasional muddy thinking. Swelling in the ankles or legs. Age may have something to do with it, but these symptoms could be related to heart health. What is congestive heart failure and how can you accurately recognize its symptoms? Since many of the signs aren't obvious, it's important to talk about how your loved one is feeling or what you're seeing.

What Is Congestive Heart Failure?

Unlike a heart attack, congestive heart failure isn't a sudden event. However, it's still a serious condition. When the heart weakens, it is unable to pump blood to the lungs, where it's oxygenated and sent out to the rest of the body. As a result, the body's organs don't receive enough oxygen and begin to malfunction. Blood and fluid can start pooling in the lungs, causing congestion and breathing problems.

If you see symptoms of congestive heart failure in the person under your care, express your concern. Use your mutual trust to open a conversation and talk about what you're seeing. If they confirm that they're feeling badly, recommend that they see their doctor.

Who Is at Risk?

Age represents one risk factor because all muscles weaken with age, and congestive heart failure generally strikes people over the age of 65. However, other health conditions can lead to this condition. Excess body weight, high blood pressure, and diabetes all put extra stress on the heart, which has the potential to wear it out sooner. High cholesterol levels lead to coronary artery disease, and the clogged arteries force your heart to work harder than it should. Having a heart attack also weakens the heart, which can open the door for ongoing failure.

Visiting the Doctor

The aforementioned symptoms of fatigue, persistent coughing, and swollen ankles don't solely indicate congestive heart failure. The signs could also point to other common health conditions, such as asthma, emphysema, or anemia. If you suspect congestive heart failure (or any major health condition) in your loved one, you should recommend that they see a doctor.

The doctor will look at a range of health issues before confirming congestive heart failure. By discussing with your loved one what may happen at their appointment, you can help reduce any anxiety they may feel. The physician or cardiologist will start with a normal discussion of the patient's personal and family health history. With a physical exam, the physician listens to heart and lung sounds, while a series of diagnostic tests can help pinpoint any problems. Here are the tests your loved one should expect when seeking a diagnosis of congestive heart failure:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): This records the heart's activity through wires placed on the chest. Among other things, EKGs detect whether the heart's walls are thicker than normal, which makes it more difficult to pump blood.
  • Stress test: This records heart function while walking or jogging on a treadmill. Cardiologists can see how the heart responds to the stress of progressively increasing activity.
  • Holter monitor: This is a portable electrocardiogram unit that the patient wears to measure the heart during regular activities.
  • Chest X-rays: The physician uses these to see whether a heart is enlarged or if the lungs are filling with fluid.
  • Cardiac MRIs: These tests generate still and motion pictures of the major blood vessels and the heart.
  • Thyroid tests: This diagnostic can determine if this gland is triggering symptoms. An imbalance of thyroid hormones can lead to heart failure.
  • Blood test: Analyzing blood can diagnose early-stage congestive heart failure by indicating the level of a protein made by heart cells.
  • Echocardiography: This form of ultrasound testing creates a moving picture of the heart, showing its size and shape. A Doppler ultrasound, which is often done as part of an echocardiogram test, illustrates whether blood flows correctly through the heart.
  • Cardiac catheterization: This test involves threading a flexible tube through the arm or groin to look at the heart. Dye can be injected during itto enhance a picture of the blood flow.

A diagnosis confirming congestive heart failure likely leads to treatment with medication, which you may need to administer and/or monitor. As a caregiver, you should also encourage and help with lifestyle changes to control diabetes, lower cholesterol, and manage weight, among other changes. Your diligence, knowledge, and kindness will help create a healthier, longer life for your patient.

Posted in Heart Health

Randy Gerber writes on health topics for print and online blogs in an effort to help people enhance their quality of life and improve the patient experience. Randy has worked on and written about national, local, and personal health care issues for 25 years. Also, he's married to an OB/GYN, which leads to lively dinner conversations.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.