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Recognising the signs of heart failure

Heart failure affects over 500,000 Australians and is the main cause of over 65 year olds ending up in hospital.

Last updated: June 27th 2022
Older man getting his blood pressure checked
Age can greatly affect your likelihood of developing the condition as your body starts slowing down as you get older. [Source: iStock]

Key points:

  • Heart failure occurs over a longer period of time and results in your heart becoming weaker and unable to function as well as it should
  • Older people are the main demographic that experience and live with this condition
  • You are still able to live well and happily even if diagnosed with this condition

While many may assume heart failure is just a heart attack, heart failure is usually experienced over a longer period of time.

Heart failure is a slow-developing condition but can steadily grow worse if not diagnosed or treated.

Older people should be very aware and on top of their heart health, as age and chronic conditions can have a huge impact on developing this condition.



What is heart failure?

Heart failure can be described as a weakening of the heart to appropriately function as it should. It means your heart isn't running effectively or at full capacity.

Generally, the main pumping chamber in your heart is not meeting its required blood pumping output.

This could be because the main chamber (or left ventricle) isn't filling with enough blood between heartbeats or the chamber has become stiff and cannot squeeze effectively to push blood around.

Living with heart failure can lead to a lot of other heart-related problems and diseases, this includes heart attacks, high blood pressure, heart inflammation or damaged heart valves, congenital heart defects, infections and abnormal heartbeats.

There are two main types of heart failure, depending on how the condition works within your body:

  • Heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, where the heart is weak and isn't pumping enough blood for your body's needs and fluid starts to build within your body, blood vessels and around your lungs
  • Heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, where the heart is pumping blood but your heart muscle is not stretching well, or is stiff, and is causing pressure to build in your heart, which can also cause fluid to leak around your lungs and body

Sometimes these types of failures can occur at the same time or because of another type of heart failure.

Prevalence in older people

The Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW) estimates that two out of three people living with heart failure are aged 65 and over.

Age can greatly affect your likelihood of developing the condition as your body can start to slow down as you get older resulting in some of your normal bodily functions not working as well as they did when you were younger.

Additionally, heart failure usually occurs alongside other chronic health conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or thyroid conditions, which are also more common among older people.

The AIHW also found that 80 percent of heart failure related deaths were among older Australians aged 75 and over.

If you have a history of chronic health conditions or heart disease in the family, it is really vital you get regular checkups on your heart.

Symptoms of heart failure

It can be hard to tell that you are experiencing heart failure as it's a condition that develops over a longer period of time, which is why it is important that you regularly see your doctor.

Peak body for heart health, hearts4hearts, says the main symptoms you should look out for are:

  • Fatigue and tiredness, including doing basic daily tasks
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles or stomach
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath and other breathing issues, including requiring pillars to prop you up so you can breathe while you sleep
  • Reduced appetite and odd weight gain during small periods of time
  • Irregular heartbeats, including heart palpitations

If you believe you are experiencing some of these symptoms, book a time to see your doctor, especially if you have severe versions of these symptoms.

Preventing or treating the condition

There are a number of ways you can reduce your risk of developing heart failure, including living a healthy lifestyle and keeping on top of your current chronic conditions management.

Since heart failure is commonly associated with occurring at the same time as other chronic health conditions, appropriately managing your chronic illnesses can lessen the likelihood of heart failure becoming an issue.

In your day-to-day life, it is important to eat well and exercise regularly, appropriately manage your weight, drink responsibly and if you're a smoker stop smoking. All these areas can reduce your likelihood of heart failure.

If you are diagnosed with heart failure there are a number of ways to treat it, so it is important you talk with your doctor about the best way that suits your needs.

How you treat your heart failure will be dependent on your personal situation, the type of heart failure you have developed, and the severity of the heart failure.

This plan may include:

  • Medication to improve your heart's function, reduce your heart rate, and reduce your clotting, sodium and cholesterol levels
  • Surgery, such as a bypass, transplants, or insertion of a stent
  • Heart devices, like pacemakers or implantable defibrillators
  • Heart failure programs, management and rehabilitation
  • Ongoing changed lifestyle, such as diet and exercise

Untreated, your heart failure could lead to a heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and kidney issues. Research has shown that 50 to 75 percent of people with heart failure will die within five years of receiving a diagnosis so it is important to manage the condition as soon as symptoms appear.

After diagnosis, your doctor will organise a regular check-up plan and treatment goals for you to follow and manage to assist you to live well while living with heart failure.

Have you ever been concerned about your heart health? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Health concerns for men over 60 years old
Top health concerns for older people
Keeping healthy physically in your old age

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