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An ailing heart affects your body in ways you might not expect, including through rapid weight gain, tiredness and fluid buildup in your lungs that makes it hard to breathe. Heart failure often causes patients to slowly lose the lifestyle they love, as they limit their social and physical activity to cope with the illness.
More of us are reaching old age and surviving life-threatening conditions like heart attacks and cancer, both of which are risk factors for heart failure. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than five million Americans now live with heart failure.
Treating heart failure is about more than just surviving — it’s about living the life you want, in body, mind and spirit. Here are some insights that can help patients meet their own goals in life — like seeing a grandchild get married or enjoying a hobby.
1. Understand Your Illness
What is it? Heart failure is caused by damage to the heart, and its origin can be as dramatic as previous heart attacks or as simple as partially blocked arteries caused by fat and cholesterol deposits.
The heart is a muscle that works by contracting and squeezing blood throughout the body. In some cases, the heart is enlarged, which makes it work much harder than it should. In other cases, the heart is normal-sized, but the walls of the heart are stiff, which makes it harder to relax and let blood fill the heart chambers efficiently. Heart stiffness can be caused by a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks.
Heart failure can also be caused by problems with your heart valves. Heart valves are responsible for regulating the flow of blood from the heart. If the valves are leaky or too narrow, then the flow can place stress on the heart.
The cause of your heart failure will also determine whether any effective treatments exist. While damage caused by heart attacks typically cannot be treated short of a transplant, heart failure that’s caused by valve issues can sometimes be repaired.
No matter the cause, understanding your heart failure can lead you to be more involved in effective treatment.
2. It’s Your Health — Own It
Patients see the best results when they take control of their health. When patients do not monitor their own health status and actively take steps to maximize wellness, they often end up in the hospital in desperate shape. With heart failure, you can control your own fluid levels through diet and medication, meaning 99 percent of patient care is in the patient's own hands.
A big part of that 99 percent is taking the right medicine at the right times and doses. It's been noted that patients who use a pillbox to organize their medication have better overall health. Many physicians encourage the use of pillboxes and ask their patients (or, with the patient’s permission, their caregiver) to bring pillboxes into the office so that they can review the use and identify any opportunities to improve therapies.
3. Arrange Your Furniture With Movement in Mind
It’s natural to set up your furniture to help you relax, but it’s especially important for people with heart failure to stay mobile. Arrange your furniture so that you have reasons to get up and move instead of stay seated for hours at a time.
Moreover, your furniture can be a handy mobility aid. If you arrange it so that you’ll always have something to grab onto as you move from room to room, you can reduce your risk of a fall.
Engaging in light exercise can give heart failure patients an excuse to dance and enjoy music they hadn’t heard in decades. Other options for beneficial activity are walking, pool workouts and lifting light weights, which can even be common household items like a one-liter water bottle.
4. Limit the Salt, But Live Your Life
Eating too much salt can cause your body to retain fluid, making your heart failure symptoms worse. Often heart failure patients are recommended a low-salt diet, but food can be incredibly important to quality of life.
As we age, our taste buds tend to lose sensitivity, so the only foods that we enjoy eating are often sweet or savory, like a cheeseburger. It's important to maintain dietary restriction for salt for patients over 80 years old, but for long-term diets, think about heart-healthy ways to sweeten up your diet.
5. Measure Your Health
There are two major measurements that people with heart failure can monitor at home: weight and blood pressure. Keeping an eye on these numbers can help you fine-tune your care and prevent painful complications.
Rapid weight gain, usually defined as more than five pounds over two days, can provide a warning sign before physical symptoms like swollen ankles appear. Taking a diuretic, or “water pill,” can help you shed water weight and avoid the shortness of breath that comes from fluid buildup in the lungs.
Furthermore, monitoring your weight will help regulate your water balance through diet, helping you limit your intake of diuretics to only when absolutely necessary. Patients should set up a weighing routine — at a certain time of day, such as right after waking up — so measurements can be compared with each other since your weight will fluctuate throughout the day.
Taking your blood pressure is a little more involved, but home blood pressure kits can make it easy. Taking these measurements allows you to keep tabs on your health, but it does more, too.
These are simple ways of participating in your care, allowing you to own your health and reinforce good habits.
6. Plan for End of Life
Planning for the end of your life is not easy for anyone. When patients have these conversations with their family, they are ultimately encouraged to make the most of their time and determine their priorities. The key is knowing what you want out of life.
If living the life you want is more important than living as long as possible — if quality is more important than quantity — then you can work with your doctor to design a care plan that can slow the progression of disease. For some people, living a higher quality but shorter life is a tradeoff worth making.
Assisting patients in living the life they love is a crucial part of treating heart failure. AdventHealth believes expert heart care should be paired with a concern for helping patients achieve feeling whole through emotional and spiritual health.
To learn more about our heart failure services, visit our website.