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Living with Heart Failure

Contributor Mandeep R. Mehra, MD, MSc, FRCP
7 minute read
An older couple walking in the park with their dog.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with heart failure, you may have concerns about what that means and how it will impact your quality of life. The good news? Many people with heart failure can comfortably manage their symptoms and live full, productive lives.

“Heart failure is a condition when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands,” explains Mandeep Mehra, MD, MBBS, MSc, FRCP (London). Dr. Mehra is a Mass General Brigham cardiologist who cares for patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It’s also called congestive heart failure or cardiomyopathy, which represents a weakness of the heart muscle. Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart isn’t working at all. It simply means it isn’t working as well as it should.”

Heart failure is generally not curable, and it can get worse over time. If you’re diagnosed with heart failure, you must learn to manage the condition for the rest of your life. By following the treatment plan developed by your doctor, tracking any symptoms, and making lifestyle changes, you can minimize the impact that heart failure has on your life. 

“While heart failure is a serious condition, we have many treatments that can improve your quality of life and enhance longevity,” Dr. Mehra says.

Researchers at Mass General Brigham are also studying promising new treatments for heart failure.

“We are developing new treatments that may help us reverse or even prevent this disease. We are especially focused on exploring treatments to recover heart function with specialized medications and devices,” says Dr. Mehra.

Learn more about or contact Mass General Brigham Heart services

Follow your heart failure treatment plan.

Take all heart failure medications as prescribed.

After you’re diagnosed with heart failure, it’s important to follow the treatment plan established by your cardiologist. Treatment for heart failure depends on the kind of heart failure you have, how early it’s diagnosed, and how serious it is. Your treatment plans may include:

  • Medications to improve the function of the heart or remove extra fluid from the body

  • Surgical procedures, like getting a specialized pacemaker or ventricular assist device

  • Managing other chronic health conditions that may worsen heart failure

Conditions that can worsen heart failure include:

Make sure to attend any follow-up medical appointments with your care team so they can stay on top of your symptoms and any changes to your health. Don’t skip doses of your prescribed medications and let your care team know of any changes in prescriptions for your other conditions.

Make healthy lifestyle changes to help manage heart failure.

Regular exercise can help strengthen the heart.

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can also help prevent heart failure symptoms from getting worse. Talk to your cardiologist or primary care provider (PCP) about steps you can take to stay healthy. Our heart health guide includes tips from cardiologists you can apply to daily life.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and can make existing heart conditions worse.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise can help improve your heart’s function over time. Try strength training or even walking.

  • Eat a balanced diet. Reduce salt intake, drink less fluid, avoid foods with high cholesterol, and get plenty of whole grains and lean protein.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor if you have overweight or obesity, as extra weight can make the heart work harder. Weight loss medications such as the new GLP-1 agonists may be a helpful option.

  • Get enough sleep. Long-term sleep loss is linked to heart disease. Adults should aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.

Get support for dealing with heart failure.

Heart health and mental health go hand in hand. Extreme stress or sudden and severe emotional events can cause Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, where people experience the symptoms of a heart attack.

If you have heart failure, you may experience feelings of stress, fear, sadness, or worry. Talk to your PCP or other members of your care team if you need help managing your stress, or if you are experiencing depression or anxiety. It may be helpful to speak with a mental health care provider or counselor, or take medication like antidepressants. There may also be patient support groups in the area where you can get advice from other heart failure patients. Let friends and family know how you’re feeling and if you need additional support from them.

Know when to seek further help or emergency care for heart failure.

Heart failure symptoms are often subtle but can get worse over time. If you do notice your symptoms getting worse, let your doctor know right away.

Call your doctor if you have signs and symptoms of worsening heart failure.

Signs and symptoms of worsening heart failure can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen

  • Shortness of breath, persistent wheezing, or coughing

  • Lack of appetite or nausea

  • Confusion or impaired thinking

  • Increased heart rate

Call 9-1-1 if you have signs and symptoms of a heart failure emergencies.

If you think you may be experiencing a medical emergency, trust your instincts and call 9-1-1. Symptoms that indicate an emergency may include:

  • Chest pain, pressure, or tightness

  • Pain or pressure in the arm, shoulder, neck, or back

  • Worsening shortness of breath

  • Sweating and weakness

  • Weakness or dizziness

  • Nausea or abdominal pain and cramping (for women)

We are developing new treatments that may help us reverse or even prevent this disease. We are especially focused on exploring treatments to recover heart function through the use of specialized medications and devices.

Mandeep R. Mehra, MD, MSc, FRCP
Mass General Brigham

What questions should I ask my doctor about heart failure?

You may have lot of questions after your heart failure diagnosis. Bring a list questions with you when you see your doctor, so that you don’t forget to ask anything that’s important to you.

Some questions you might consider asking about heart failure:

  • How can I maintain or improve my current quality of life?

  • Do I have any activity restrictions I should be aware of, whether it’s a type of exercise, daily activities, or sex?

  • Are there any over-the-counter medications that might interact with my prescription medications?

  • Are there any patients support groups or other resources I should be aware of?

  • What symptoms should I be keeping an eye on? When should I notify your office if I see change?

  • When should I seek emergency medical attention?

  • What are my treatment options if my heart failure gets worse?

  • What is my prognosis even after my symptoms are controlled?

Heart failure is a condition that requires careful management. By following a treatment plan and working closely with your providers, you can help slow its progression. And promising research from Mass General Brigham means that new treatments may be available in the near future to further delay, prevent, and treat heart failure.

Mandeep R. Mehra, MD