In Health Issues on Tuesday 25th Jun, 2019

The serious condition that could be affecting your heart – and it’s not a heart attack

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Healthy habits, like taking a daily walk, reduce your likelihood of developing heart failure.

Experts are warning older Aussies to be on the lookout this winter for signs of a struggling heart.

60-pluses are at increased risk during winter of the complications of a condition known as ‘heart failure’, where the heart muscle is no longer strong enough to pump enough blood around the body.

In contrast to a heart attack, which occurs when one of the arteries becomes blocked and causes the heart muscles to be deprived of oxygen and to die, heart failure is caused by the inability of the heart to pump enough blood.

This causes fluid to build up in the lungs, stomach and legs and may mean that less oxygen is reaching the brain and muscles. Heart failure may be caused by ‘wear and tear’ to the heart muscle or from damage following a heart attack or heart surgery.

Professor Andrew Sindone, a Sydney-based cardiologist and professor at the University of Sydney who specialises in the treatment of heart failure, says everyone knows about the risk of flu during winter. However, he adds, “Most Australians haven’t heard of heart failure, let alone the symptoms of the condition.

“It is critically important, particularly as the colder weather sets in, that older Australians and their loved ones seek medical help if they notice any signs that may indicate that the heart is struggling.”

How will you know if you have heart failure?

Symptoms of a weakened heart may include feeling out of breath, being too tired to do things you used to do such as walking up stairs and experiencing swelling in your ankles, feet, legs or stomach.

These signs do not necessarily indicate heart failure and could be a sign of other conditions, however it’s important that you talk to your doctor if you experience these symptoms.

  • A loss of appetite and nausea
  • A sudden increase in weight from fluid retention
  • Difficulty sleeping when lying flat, leading to you having to sleep propped up with multiple pillows
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm
  • Increased need to urinate at night
  • Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus
  • Chest pain, if your heart failure has been caused by a heart attack

Prof Sindone said that these symptoms should be acted upon because they could indicate a serious underlying problem.

“If someone has symptoms of heart failure, it’s a big red flag saying this patient is sick, they need to see a doctor now, otherwise they will deteriorate quickly,” he says.

“The problem we face is that many people don’t know they have heart failure. Even if they have been diagnosed, their doctor may not have used the term ‘heart failure’, as it may sound too absolute.

“Instead, doctors sometimes speak of a weak heart that has difficulty pumping. People with heart failure sometimes say they have a ‘dicky ticker’.

“If you’ve been living with a heart condition for a number of years, it may be time to speak to your doctor in case you need further help.”

Prof Sindone said that symptoms such as being out of breath or feeling fatigued may come on very gradually.

“It’s easy to dismiss these symptoms as a normal part of ageing, but they mustn’t be ignored. Speaking to a doctor is really important,” Prof Sindone said.

The impact of heart failure

Heart failure affects around half a million Aussies, with more than 67,000 people diagnosed each year. More than 60,000 Australians die from complications caused by heart failure each year.

While the worsening of heart failure can occur at any time of year, cold weather causes your blood vessels to narrow, putting more pressure on your heart. Doctors say this is one of the reasons why there is an increase in the number of hospital admissions and deaths related to the condition in the colder months.

Fortunately, there are things that we can all do to help protect our hearts:

  • Tell your doctor if you are more out of breath than normal, if you are too tired to do the things you normally do, or if you have swollen ankles, feet or legs
  • Ask your doctor if these symptoms could indicate that your heart is struggling to pump blood
  • Make a note of any symptoms you experience, and if they are getting worse
  • Take these notes to your doctor’s appointment to share with your doctor
  • Keep warm and avoid exposure to cold which puts more pressure on your heart
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle to reduce the impact on your heart, by taking a walk each day and limiting salt and alcohol intake
  • Encourage friends and family to speak to their doctor if they are experiencing any of these symptoms

Do you know someone who lives with this condition? Or have you experienced symptoms which may indicate heart failure?

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Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

Safeguarding your heart health

Heart failure affects around half a million Aussies, with more than 67,000 people diagnosed each year. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing possible symptoms of heart failure. You can learn more about the condition here.

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