Coping With Heart Failure

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Finding ways to treat and cope with heart failure is vital to recovery and a better quality of life. Most people who have heart failure experience physical limitations and may feel depressed and anxious. Heart disease impacts many facets of your life so it is important to find ways to manage your illness to live a full, productive life.

There are strategies that can help you cope with these concerns and better manage your condition.

Heart disease impacts many facets of your life so it is important to find ways to manage your illness to live a full, productive life.

Physical

A key to living well with heart failure is carefully monitoring your symptoms. Medication adjustments or lifestyle changes are often all that's needed to address new or increasing symptoms. Ignoring them or hoping they will go away without treatment can result in a permanent worsening of your heart condition.

If new symptoms appear or if chronic symptoms change in their frequency or intensity, you need to alert your healthcare team right away. Some heart failure signs to watch for include:

  • Swelling (edema), in the feet, ankles, legs or stomach
  • Weight gain: This often is a sign of fluid retention.
  • Persistent coughing that produces white or pink blood-tinged mucus
  • Shortness of breath: This can occur during activity, at rest, or even during sleep. Fluid buildup in the lungs causes difficulty breathing.
  • Weakness or fatigue: Feeling tired all the time and unable to do daily activities
  • Loss of appetite: You may feel full or nauseous.
  • Confusion: You may experience memory loss or disorientation.
  • Irregular heartbeat: Your heart may feel like it's racing. 
  • Chest pain 

Diet and Exercise

Your diet and physical activity play a crucial role in coping with heart failure. Once you have developed the disease, taking some concrete actions in your daily life are central to preventing the condition from worsening. 

  • Diet: For most people with heart failure, a heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean-style diet, can help keep excess weight at bay and reduce blood vessel inflammation that often contributes to heart disease.
  • Salt restriction is also incredibly important. Speak with your doctor about what an optimal diet is for you. Consider meeting with a dietitian who can provide further guidance and discuss how to manage a low-sodium diet. Salt is ubiquitous in Western diets, so it's easy to eat too much of it even when you stop adding salt to food. You may need more specific dietary advice if you have additional conditions, such as diabetes or high cholesterol.
  • Weight: Achieving a healthy weight can help reduce excess stress on your heart, helping improve your symptoms and your overall condition. Keeping a close eye on your weight by weighing daily can also help you detect changes in your cardiac condition. Heart failure can cause rapid weight gain when additional sodium and water are being retained.
  • Exercise: It may be difficult to exercise, but even a small amount counts. Regular, moderate exercise can improve your overall cardiovascular fitness and reduce chronic strain on your heart. Walking, using an exercise bike, stretching, and even lifting light weights can greatly enhance your overall wellness. If you have not exercised recently, you may want to ask your doctor about beginning with a formal cardiac rehab program. Avoid exercising in extreme heat or cold, and do not try strenuous activity unless your doctor clears you.

Other Lifestyle Changes

  • Quit smoking: Exposure to smoke causes damage to your blood vessels, including the coronary arteries. If you smoke, it is critical to your health that you quit.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can be toxic to the heart muscle, and in some people, can produce dilated cardiomyopathy. Your doctor might recommend that you completely abstain from alcohol or only drink moderate amounts depending on your heart failure's severity.

Emotional

The impact of heart failure can be emotional as well as physical. Heart failure symptoms can require you to change your routine. Symptoms may prevent you from engaging in activities you may have enjoyed before or make them more challenging, for example. Necessary changes for the proper management of heart failure can also seem mentally overwhelming.

Coping with emotional issues begins with identifying them, and then using effective strategies to modify them. Therefore it is important to seek professional attention, openly explain your symptoms to a healthcare professional, and follow any recommended therapy or prescribed medication.

Common emotional issues associated with heart failure include:

  • Stress: Too much emotional stress can damage your heart. Stress raises your blood pressure and exacerbates coronary artery disease (CAD), both of which worsen heart failure. Though a certain amount of stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life, it's best to avoid unnecessary stress. Learning methods to cope with stress is good for your heart.
  • Depression: People with heart failure are at higher risk of developing chronic depression. If you experience sadness, guilt, a lack of hope for the future, or a sense that you are a burden, you may be depressed. If you have signs of depression lasting for more than a week, you may want to discuss this with your doctor. 

Social

The physical limitations of heart failure can make it difficult for you to get around like you used to. You may find yourself bowing out of social activities because of your lack of energy and shortness of breath, for example. These social adjustments are often an isolating experience.

If you have heart failure, you may find it helpful to network with people going through the same experience. In a heart failure support group, you can learn various strategies that have worked for others managing lifestyle changes, taking medications, dealing with complications and side effects, working with insurers, and more.

Your doctor or hospital may be able to recommend a local heart failure support group, or you can check with the Heart Failure Society of America or the American Heart Association.

Prioritizing and planning get-togethers that are doable for you is essential to keeping up social ties—and a necessary effort for your overall happiness.

Consider viewing life in a different light: You might not be able to participate in family events or activities with your friends as often or for as long as you used to, but that doesn't necessarily mean these opportunities are entirely off-limits. Some additional ways you may engage with others include:

  • Selecting activities that are nearest to your home
  • Attending a function, but volunteering to take part only in activities that don't tire you out
  • You can also try attending and leaving an activity early if you're not feeling well
  • Virtually connecting with friends and loved ones on video chats

Practical Considerations

When it comes to living with heart failure, there are several practical considerations related to the logistics of managing your condition. Developing a system for taking your medications, monitoring your health, and keeping track of your progress are just a few.

Medications

Heart failure can require a complicated drug regimen. It is essential to have a system that can help you remember to take the necessary medications and the right dosage.

Keep a current list of all the medications your doctor has prescribed so that you can share that information with other health care providers. This list should include the brand name and generic name of each drug, the prescribed dose, the time you are supposed to take it, what it is for, possible side effects, and which side effects need to be reported to your healthcare team right away. This information can be obtained from your doctor or pharmacist if you don't have it already.

You also need a system for taking the right medications at the right time.

Some people find a simple daily checklist to be helpful, while others use smartphone calendar reminders or apps for this purpose. Alternatively, you can use a special dispenser that portions out medication by day. Choose whatever method will work best for you.

Other important tips:

  • Never change your medicines or doses without discussing it first with your doctor. Heart failure medications interact with one another, and even a simple change can have far-reaching consequences.
  • Ask your doctor what to do if you inadvertently skip a dose of one of your medications. Your doctor may have different instructions depending on the drug.
  • If you are traveling, always make sure you have enough medicine with you to get you through your entire trip. When flying, it is best to carry medications with you, rather than place it in a checked bag.

Heart Failure Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Personal Technology

There are numerous options for technology that can help you better manage your heart failure. There are devices, apps, and tools you may consider using, in addition to your routine medical care, to monitor your condition:

  • At-home vital signs: Automated blood pressure devices or pulsometers have been available for years, and most of them are reasonably accurate. You can find pulsometers in most pharmacies. If your blood pressure fluctuates, routinely measuring your blood pressure at home may give your doctor a more comprehensive idea of your blood pressure pattern.
  • Fitness trackers: Small devices such as Fitbit, Apple Watch, and others, in addition to smartphone apps, can help ensure you are getting a sufficient amount of exercise each day. These devices measure your steps, distance walked, calories burned, heart rate, and can chart your history.
  • Data collection tools: Technology can help you record and track various aspects of your health so that you, your doctor, or a specialist can observe trends over time and modify your management plan accordingly if needed. Wireless weight scales that sync to your phone are one example, as are digital food logs.
  • Mobile heart function: Some smartwatches can measure your heart rate and alert you if your sustained heart rate goes above a threshold value. Combined with a device such as the Kardiaband from AliveCor, the Apple Watch can even record and transmit an EEG so that a doctor can pinpoint what kind of heart rhythm is associated with the rapid heart rate. These devices may turn out to be particularly useful if you are having unexplained episodes of palpitations or dizziness. 

A Word From Verywell

Coping with heart failure has challenges. But there are many options at hand to stay on top of your heart failure and still have an active life. You may want to enlist loved ones to assist you if you feel overwhelmed. Your doctor can also provide resources to help you cope better.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Heart Association. Warning signs of heart failure. Updated May 31, 2017.

  2. American Heart Association. Lifestyle changes for heart failure. Updated May 31, 2017.

  3. Fioranelli M, Bottaccioli AG, Bottaccioli F, Bianchi M, Rovesti M, Roccia MG. Stress and inflammation in coronary artery disease: A review psychoneuroendocrineimmunology-based. Front Immunol. 2018;9:2031. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2018.02031

  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart Disease and Depression: A Two-Way Relationship. Published April 16, 2017.

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