What Is Heart Failure? Here’s What It Does to Your Body (and How Long You Can Expect to Live)

Heart disease is one of the deadliest diseases in the United States. Most people don’t know they have it until it’s too late. And while it can come in several forms, heart failure may be the most well-known — and the one that sounds the most terrifying.

As you can guess from its name, the survival rate for people with heart failure isn’t as uplifting as you might hope. Whether it’s because of a sudden heart attack or a completely unrelated chronic disease,

Here’s what heart failure really is, how you get it, and how long you can expect to live after an official diagnosis.

The difference between a heart attack and heart failure

A heart attack and congestive heart failure are not the same conditions. Though they both affect the heart and a person’s quality of life, their symptoms and complications are completely different. Both are technically forms of heart disease.

A heart attack describes a single event in which blood flow to the heart becomes blocked, depriving the organ of oxygen. It’s possible to survive a heart attack, but immediate intervention is essential.

Heart failure is a progressive disease that causes the heart to become weaker over time. A “failing” heart can’t pump blood through your body effectively, causing fatigue and even the damage and failure of other organs.

A heart attack is just one of many events that can lead to heart failure. But you don’t have to have one to develop this form of heart disease.

What causes heart failure?

Heart failure

Heart failure | Hywards/iStock/Getty Images

Your heart has the most important job out of all the organs in your body — and your health suffers significantly when it can’t do that job.

When it becomes damaged, or the vessels, valves, or other things in or surrounding it stop working, your heart has to work harder to compensate. This makes the organ weaker and increases the likelihood that it will fail.

Some health conditions directly cause damage to your heart quickly or over time and weaken it, but this isn’t always the case. However, heart disease is the most common precursor, as well as the most preventable.

The following conditions and more are the main causes of heart failure:

  • A heart attack or heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart defects
  • Infections
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Abnormal heart rhythms.

You’re more likely to develop heart failure if you’ve had a heart attack, are obese, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or have sleep apnea, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

By the time someone is diagnosed with heart failure, their body is already in distress. Here’s what happens as the disease progresses.

What happens to your body with heart failure?

As the condition progresses, the heart can no longer work as hard as it used to. While you may have been able to exercise and go about your daily tasks just fine before, a failing heart can make even getting out of bed a laborious chore.

Symptoms of heart failure range from mild (shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty concentrating) to severe (chest pain, irregular heartbeat, persistent, worsening cough). They can vary depending on the type, but it’s not uncommon for many people to experience swelling in the legs and feet or rapid weight gain from fluid retention.

Over time, heart failure can damage your kidneys and liver and eventually cause them to fail.

Heart failure prognosis: How long can you expect to live?

Heart disease

Heart disease | iStock.com/RTimages

Research has found that over half of those diagnosed with heart failure live past five years. But a more exact estimate depends on the stage of heart failure you have. Individuals with less severe stages can expect to live longer than those in later stages of the disease. Some research suggests younger people have a better outlook than older adults.

A moderate stage of heart failure might give you a decade at most. Approximately 90% of those with advanced heart failure will die within a year.

Some people can extend their life expectancy if their treatment involves lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise. But these won’t “cure” heart failure. Once your heart begins to fail, you can’t reverse the resulting damage to the organ.

Can heart failure be cured?

Most treatment options focus on regulating heartbeat and blood flow. A handful of medications, surgeries, and medical devices can help your heart pump blood throughout your body more effectively despite its weakened state.

Some people in end-stage heart failure qualify for heart transplants. But the waiting period for donor hearts is so long that many conditions improve with other treatments, disqualifying a patient from the waiting list.

When medications are no longer effective and medical devices or an organ transplant aren’t options for the individual, doctors usually recommend palliative¬†and hospice care. This type of care is designed to treat symptoms of a disease when it becomes terminal.

Heart failure, like many forms of heart disease, can mostly be prevented. Unfortunately, because most people don’t know they have it until it’s progressed to a later stage, changing your lifestyle habits after the fact doesn’t improve your rate of survival.

It’s not too late to start making changes. Even one small shift can make all the difference.

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