Living with Heart Failure: Treatments and Lifestyle Changes You Need

“Heart failure can be heart success.”

Loading the player...

The term “heart failure” is a bit misleading. It doesn’t mean your heart has stopped working. “It’s a misnomer,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Heart failure is treatable.”

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle has become weak and can’t pump blood well enough to meet the body’s needs. Basically, it can’t keep up with its workload. Here’s more about what happens to your heart during heart failure.

After you’re diagnosed with heart failure, your doctor will likely suggest a treatment regimen, which may include a series of lifestyle changes, medications, or devices or surgery. The success of heart failure treatment greatly depends on your commitment to managing the condition by following your doctor's recommendations and making the necessary changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle to give you the highest possible quality of life.

“Heart failure can be heart success,” says Dr. Bhusri. “And it gets to be heart success if you really make it into a life event.”

Treating Heart Failure with Medication

“We use medications in heart failure, both to make symptoms better, but also improve survival with heart failure,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.

The same medications used to treat heart disease are used to treat heart failure, but they’re prescribed in more robust amounts, says Dr. Bhusri. The classes of medications routinely used to treat heart failure include:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors: “ACE inhibitors are used to relax the blood vessels, decrease blood pressure, and increase the amount of blood that’s getting pumped forward to the body,” says Dr. Bloom.
  • Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs): ARBs block the action of angiotensin II, allowing blood vessels to widen (dilate).
  • Angiotensin-receptor neprilysin inhibitors (ARNIs): ARNIs are a new drug combination of a neprilysin inhibitor and an ARB (sacubitril/valsartan). “Valsartan is a relative of an ACE inhibitor. Sacubitril is a brand new class of medication, says Dr. Bhusri. “It’s actually a hormone that’s released by the top of your heart to help patients unload the pressures of their heart.”
  • Beta blockers: These medications reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
  • If channel blocker (or inhibitor): This drug class reduces the heart rate, similar to beta blockers.
  • Mineralocorticoid antagonist, or aldosterone antagonist: “Not only do [these medications] help with fluid retention, we know that they actually affect mortality,” says Dr. Bloom.
  • Hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate: This class of drugs specifically benefits African Americans with heart failure.
  • Diuretics (water pills): “These are medications that decrease the amount of fluid in your body,” says Dr. Bhusri.

Lifestyle Modifications for Managing Heart Failure

Patients with mild to moderate heart failure can lead normal, healthy lives. Adjusting your lifestyle can help reduce your heart failure symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve your quality of life. Here are some lifestyle adjustment that can help.

  • Skip the salt shaker. “A lot of patients with heart failure are very sensitive to salt intake or fluid intake,” says Dr. Bloom. Check the sodium count on your food labels, and aim for no more than 1,500 mg per day, says Dr. Bhusri. Here are ways to eat less salt for heart failure treatment.
  • Get moving. It may be tempting to avoid physical activity after learning you have heart failure, but exercising with heart failure actually plays a key role in managing the condition and improving heart failure symptoms. Here’s how to start exercising with heart failure (with your doctor’s permission and guidance).
  • Lose weight if you need to. Losing weight could have a major impact on your heart failure treatment and recovery. Here’s how weight loss can impact heart failure treatment.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking is not only a cause of heart failure, but it can increase complications associated with heart failure. Here’s more on why you should quit smoking if you have heart failure.

Devices and Surgical Procedures for Heart Failure

“After you’ve been on a series of medications, [we’ll check] to see if the pumping of the heart improved,” says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “If we notice that the muscle still remains weak, we may suggest that you need a device that’s called a defibrillator. If your heart were to go into an abnormal rhythm, it would ultimately shock you out of it.”

Sometimes, despite doctors’ best efforts to treat heart failure with medication, lifestyle changes, and device therapy (like defibrillators), patients are still hospitalized for their heart failure. “Patients find that their heart failure is really limiting their quality of life,” says Dr. Bloom. “In those situations we tend to escalate care. For example, we start to evaluate patients for more aggressive therapies like a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), or in certain situations a heart transplant.”