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Answers to Questions About Heart Failure

By Dr. Navin Rajagopalan and Dr. Mark Bonnell

Nearly half a million more people will be diagnosed with heart failure this year. Here are answers to common questions about heart failure and the options for treatment.

Q: My father has heart failure. How is it different from a heart attack?
A: Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is not able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. It is different than a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to an area of the heart is blocked. Whereas a heart attack can occur very suddenly and quickly, heart failure is typically a chronic and progressive disorder. 

Q: Does heart failure affect young people?
A: Heart failure is primarily a disease of older people, but younger people can develop it. Most commonly, this occurs when younger patients have risk factors including severe hypertension, diabetes mellitus and a history of smoking. In rare cases, a viral infection can affect the heart and lead to heart failure in young people. 

Q: What are the symptoms of heart failure?
A:  The most common symptoms are shortness of breath, swelling of the feet, legs, or abdomen, and getting tired easily. Other diseases can cause these symptoms, so it is important to let your doctor know. 

Q: What treatments are available for heart failure?
A:  Reducing salt and fluid intake, exercising, and losing weight can dramatically improve symptoms. Medications can also make patients feel better and live longer. Some patients may benefit from heart valve repairs or replacements, bypass surgery, or implantation of a blood pump. Heart transplantation provides complete relief from heart failure but remains limited by the supply of viable organs.

Q: How does the heart transplant process work?
A:  Patients who continue to experience significant limitation from their symptoms may be candidates for a heart transplant. Patients at the University of Kentucky are evaluated by the transplant team, which includes a cardiologist, surgeon, social worker, nurse coordinator, pharmacist, financial assistant, nutritionist and transplant coordinator. If a patient is a good candidate, he or she is listed with UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) with patients at all other transplant centers in the United States. Patients are matched depending on how critically ill the patient is, blood type and size. The wait typically ranges from three weeks to over a year.

Q: What if a “match” can’t be found quickly? 
A:  For waiting patients with worsening heart failure, the best option is an implantable blood pump called an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device), which takes over the pumping function for the left side of the heart and allows the patient to go home and get stronger until a suitable donor heart becomes available. UK received the highest approval for our LVAD program earlier this year.

Q: What is life like after a transplant? 
A: Over 90 percent of our heart transplant patients resume a normal life. You will need to take several medications to make sure your new heart is functioning properly and to prevent rejection, and you will need to have regular follow-up appointments with our transplant team. Patients also return for biopsies on a regularly scheduled basis.

Q: If I need a transplant, will I have to travel to another hospital?
A: The University of Kentucky has a very active heart transplant program with excellent results. Our Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Program is the only program of its kind in the region. You may reach us at 1-800-456-5287. 

Dr. Navin Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of medicine, and Dr. Mark Bonnell is assistant professor of surgery at the UK College of Medicine.