Guide To: Heart Failure In Women

Heart Failure in Women


Congestive Heart Failure


What Is Congestive Heart Failure?
What Causes It?
What Are The Symptoms?
Who Develops Heart Failure?
How Is It Diagnosed?
How Heart Failure Treated?
What's The Prognosis?


Angina Attack
Circulatory System
Chest Pain in Women
Coronary Heart Disease
Heart Arrhythmia
Heart Disease in Women
Heart Attacks in Women
Stroke in Women

Guide To CHF

How To Do CPR
Living With Heart Failure
Heart Disease Statistics

Heart failure is also known as congestive heart failure (CHF) or cardiomyopathy.

What Is Congestive Heart Failure?

Heart failure is where where the heart is weakened or failing and has difficulties as a result in pumping blood around the body. Experts still disagree about how to define CHF because it appears to be a syndrome (a cluster of symptoms) caused by a variety of diseases, rather than a disease in itself. Generally it is agreed that if a disease starts to weaken the heart it is then termed as heart failure rather than the disease itself. So for example, if coronary heart disease (CHD, disease of the arteries supplying blood to the heart) eventually starts to weaken the heart, the person is then said to be suffering heart failure. CHD becomes the underlying cause. While the failing heart may continue to work, it does so at a gradually lowered capacity.

What effect does CHF have on the body? When the heart has problems pumping blood, this has the knock on effect of causing blood to back up in the veins which are supposed to return blood into the heart for new supplies of oxygen. The overall effect is a blood and oxygen depravation throughout the body causing other organs to work less efficiently. Also, as blood builds up in the arteries, it can cause fluid to leak into surrounding tissues such as the lungs, legs, liver and ankles. This can cause swelling (edema) and other problems. For example, fluid accumulation in the liver impairs its ability to rid the body of toxins. Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) causes breathing difficulties and diminished ability to exercise. If the kidneys do not receive enough fresh blood they begin to lose their ability to rid of the body of sodium and water, causing further build up of fluids. Eventually if left untreated, CHF will gradually affect every part of the body.

What Causes It?

Causes of heart failure: The heart can become damaged and weakened as a result of many underlying conditions including:
• CHD, although this is more likely to be a cause for men.
• Long-standing high blood pressure.
• Mechanical problems of the heart such as heart valve disease.
• Previous heart attacks damaging muscle.
• Heart arrhythmias.
• Defects present at birth (congenital heart defects).
• Long-standing abuse of alcohol.
• Infections of the heart.

The Difference Between Men and Women

There are 2 phases to the pumping action of the heart. The first is called the systole phase, where the heart muscle squeezes, pumping blood through the arteries. In the second phase (diastole), the muscles relax, allowing the heart to fill with blood, ready to begin a new cycle. The type of heart failure caused by CHD occurs because damaged heart muscle loses its ability to squeeze. This is the most common cause of heart failure in men (systolic heart failure). Women are more likely to suffer from problems associated with the relaxation phase (diastolic heart failure). The heart muscle becomes stiffer and unable to relax. The most common cause of this is sustained high blood pressure.

What Are The Symptoms?

Symptoms of heart failure are dependent on which part of the heart is failing. The most common symptoms are:

Breathing Difficulties
Fluid can accumulate in the lungs causing shortness of breath, which may be particularly evident when lying down or exercising. Some people wake at night grasping for air. This is caused when pumping from the left side of the heart is failing, causing a condition known as pulmonary edema which is characterized by breathlessness.

Swelling (edema)
If the right side of the heart is failing, this can result in swelling in other parts of the body such as the legs, ankles, liver and abdomen. Swelling and breathing difficulties will occur if both sides of the heart are failing, which is often the case. Extra fluid in the body can cause an increased need to urinate, particularly at night. Accumulation of fluid in the intestines and liver can cause nausea, abdominal pain and decreased appetite.

Fatigue & Weakness
Lack of blood flow around the heart causes fatigue and weakness. While fatigue is an early symptom of heart failure, it is also an indicator of many other conditions too. If a person's ability to exercise is also diminished, this combination is a warning sign. Some people may subconsciously readjust their activity level to accommodate their new limitations.

Degree of Heart Failure

The New York Heart Association introduced a scale describing the various range of symptoms which occur with heart failure. These are:Level 1
Shortness of breath or fatigue only after an unusual amount of exertion.
Level 2
Symptoms occur with daily activities such as climbing stairs or walking from the car to the store.
Level 3
Symptoms appear with all activity.
Level 4
Shortness of breath and fatigue occurs while resting.

Who Develops Heart Failure?

Looking at the risk factors, both men and women with either hypertension and coronary heart disease are at increased risk of heart failure. 80 percent of patients are over 70 years of age. And of those cases about 75 percent are linked to high blood pressure.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of heart failure: Initial evaluation of heart failure starts with a discussion of symptoms and a physical examination by a doctor. The examination will check for any swelling in the legs, fluid on the lungs, heart murmurs or enlarged veins in the neck. An electrocardiogram test (ECG) is also usually performed to check for any abnormalities in the heart's rhythm and an echocardiogram (image) can examine the heart's pumping action. Various urine and blood tests can check liver function and a chest X-ray can rule out other potential causes of lung problems.

How Is Heart Failure Treated?

There is no specific cure for heart failure, but various steps can be taken to help the patient live a relatively normal life. Traditionally treatment for heart failure consisted of plenty of rest, certain heart medications to help the heart pump more efficiently, ACE inhibitors to reduce resistance to blood flow and a diet with limited salt intake (to reduce swelling). In some cases heart failure surgery is prescribed to replace damaged valves or heart muscle. In severe cases (level 4) a heart transplant is recommended. It now appears that the drugs most commonly prescribed for heart failure, including digitalis (increases the hearts pumping action), diuretics (to help rid the body of excess fluid) and vasodilators (which widen the arteries to increase blood flow) may not work for some women whose cause of heart failure is the heart's inability to fill with blood. Other medications such as calcium channel blockers and beta blockers may be better options. See also coronary heart disease treatment.

What's The Prognosis?

The outlook for those with congestive heart failure varies depending on the level of symptoms present and the underlying cause. If an abnormal heart rhythm is the cause, this can be treated with arrhythmia therapies and heart failure is unlikely to recur. Heart failure caused by hypertension can be treated successfully with blood pressure drugs. When the heart muscle has been damaged by a heart attack the outlook is less bright and the patient's movements are likely to be limited. Have any more questions on health? See our section womens health questions. It looks at many questions, including what is the prognosis for heart failure?

  Other Useful Guides

Most Recommended Health Screenings For Women: All ages.
The Female Body: Visual guide, how a woman's body works.
Hospital Departments Explained: A to Z of departments.
Lymphatic System: Body's fluid drainage system.
Chest Problems: Symptoms of various chest conditions described.
Joints and Bone Problems: How CHF affects the legs.

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