Heart Failure

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Heart failure occurs when the heart loses its ability to pump enough blood through the body to meet the body’s requirements. It's not a sudden or complete stop of heart activity.

In some cases, heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is weak (systolic). In other cases, the heart muscle is stiff and unable to fill sufficiently with blood (diastolic).

Causes of Heart Failure

As we age, nearly everyone’s heart loses some pumping capacity. Heart failure affects about 10% of people over age 80. The most common cause of heart failure in this country is disease of the arteries that supply the heart muscle. 

Heart Failure Treatment at UVA

James Bergin, MD discusses heart failure and the treatment options available at UVA. View heart failure transcript.

In some cases, heart failure can occur after a viral or bacterial infection, as a result of a birth defect or because of alcohol ingestion.

The leading causes of heart failure are:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack

Other common causes include:

  • Problems with the heart's valves due to:
    • Rheumatic heart disease
    • Bacterial endocarditis
    • Congenital defects
    • Calcium deposits from atherosclerosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes

Other less common causes include:

  • Cardiomyopathy (weakened, damaged heart muscle from age or congenital defects)
  • Certain medications
  • Abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias)
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
  • Amyloidosis (where an abnormal protein builds up in your body)
  • Kidney failure and/or liver failure
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency

Symptoms of Heart Failure

Heart failure usually occurs gradually, but sudden episodes of 'congestion' may occur.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath with activity or when lying flat
  • Swelling in the feet, legs or abdomen
  • Sudden awakening at night with a feeling that you can’t catch your breath
  • Fatigue, inability to do your daily activities
  • Palpitations
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting

Symptoms of Worsening Heart Failure

Talk to your doctor if your heart failure worsens to the point where you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Inability to do the activities you were able to do a few days ago
  • Worsening shortness of breath at rest or with activity
  • Persistent cough
  • Swelling of your feet, legs, abdomen or hands   
  • Weight gain of three pounds in one day or five pounds in one week   
  • Sudden wakening in the middle of the night feeling like you can’t catch your breath   
  • Sensation that your heart is racing, or going very slowly, that lasts for several minutes

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.