Aging & Health A to Z
Causes & Symptoms
In diastolic heart failure, the walls of the heart have thickened, making it difficult for the heart to relax and fill with blood. The most common cause is chronic high blood pressure.
In systolic heart failure, the heart is usually enlarged and has thinner walls. This results in weaker heartbeats, which reduce the amount of blood the heart pumps out to the rest of your body. Systolic heart failure often develops after you’ve suffered one or more heart attacks, or have a history of coronary artery disease.
Other common causes include:
- Heart valve problems. Heart valves keep the blood flowing through your heart in the right direction. Narrowing (stenosis) of the heart valves can lead to a backup in the blood flow. Leaky heart valves may promote fluid buildup that makes it harder for your heart to pump efficiently. Both conditions can weaken your heart over time.
- Abnormal heart beats (arrhythmias). When your heartbeat is irregular—too fast or too slow—it affects your heart’s ability to pump enough blood throughout your body.
- Inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) due to an infection can cause heart failure.
- Sleep apnea occurs when tissues in your throat block your airway and cause pauses in your breathing. Sleep apnea is a risk factor for heart failure as well as other circulatory conditions, such as high blood pressure and stroke. Loud snoring can be an apnea symptom.
Common Heart Failure Symptoms
Heart failure symptoms can vary, depending on the type and severity of the heart failure.
Acute heart failure comes on suddenly, and may be the result of a heart attack. Symptoms may include:
- Severe chest pain that often feels like pressure or squeezing
- Sudden, severe shortness of breath
- Coughing up foamy, pink fluid
- Extreme fatigue
- Sudden anxiety or confusion
- Sudden swelling of your legs, feet, or ankles.
If you have any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
Chronic heart failure is an ongoing medical condition. If you’ve been diagnosed with heart failure, watch for these chronic heart failure symptoms, and let your healthcare professional know if they become worse.
Fluid Buildup (Retention)
When the heart’s pumping action becomes weaker, less blood flows through the body with each heartbeat. This results in fluid that builds up in various parts of the body.
- Lungs: Fluid buildup here leads to coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. This may progress from wheezing during exertion, to congestion and coughing at night, to difficulty breathing even when you’re resting or lying down. You may notice that you have to prop your head up in bed to be able to breathe more comfortably, or may need to sit up at night to catch your breath.
- Feet and ankles: Extra fluid here makes your feet and ankles swell and your legs feel heavy.
- Liver: When fluid accumulates here, it may cause abdominal problems, including discomfort in the upper right part of your abdomen, a sense of fullness after eating, loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting.
Other Heart Failure Symptoms
- Decreased alertness, difficulty concentrating
- Memory loss
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low energy
- Gaining weight
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat (a feeling of pounding or your heart “skipping beats”).
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012