Are You at Risk for Congestive Heart Failure?

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Michael Kovac/FilmMagic

The news that actress Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday morning of congestive heart failure at age 79 highlights how common the disease is in the U.S.

Five million Americans are living with congestive heart failure, and 400,000 new diagnoses are made each year. Taylor announced that she suffered from the illness in 2004, one in a long line of ailments and medical setbacks she endured during her life. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

According to one chronicler, she suffered more than 70 illnesses, injuries and accidents requiring hospitalization, including an appendectomy, an emergency tracheotomy, a punctured esophagus, a hysterectomy, dysentery, an ulcerated eye, smashed spinal discs, phlebitis, skin cancer and hip replacements. In 1997, she had a benign brain tumor removed. By her own count, she nearly died four times.

In 2004 she disclosed that she had congestive heart failure and crippling spinal problems that left her in constant pain. For much of her life she struggled with alcohol and prescription painkillers.

Heart failure is a chronic, long-term condition with many causes. The most common cause is coronary artery disease, a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. It can also result from an infection that weakens the heart muscle, a condition known as cardiomyopathy, or by a heart defect at birth. Other heart problems that may cause heart failure include congenital heart disease, heart attack, heart valve disease and some arrhythmias. In addition, diseases like emphysema, severe anemia and thyroid problems may contribute to heart failure.

Heart failure is defined as the inability of the heart to pump a sufficient amount of blood to rest of the body. The failing heart doesn’t stop working; it works less well. At first, congestive heart patients may notice symptoms like shortness of breath, rapid pulse or even fainting only when they exert themselves — while walking, running or dancing, for instance. But over time, breathing problems and other symptoms may occur even during rest.

Because heart failure affects the kidneys’ ability to dispose of sodium and water, common signs of the condition include swollen legs or ankles and weight gain as fluid accumulates.

Heart failure may have been one of the reasons Taylor used a wheelchair in recent years. But Taylor was able to manage her condition for longer than many patients. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), as many as 20% of heart failure patients die within one year of diagnosis and half die within five years. Taylor managed her illness for nearly eight years.

Heart failure tends to affect older people more often: 1% of people aged 50 have heart failure, compared 5% of those aged 75 or older and 25% of those aged 85 years or older. The condition is more common among African Americans than whites.

To learn more about the symptoms and treatments of heart failure — most people with mild or moderate heart failure can be successfully treated — please see the National Institutes of Health or the AHA websites.