What is Heart Failure?

Updated:May 18,2012
If you have heart failure, you’re not alone. About 5.7 million Americans are living with it today. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons people age 65 and older go into the hospital. It can take years for heart failure to develop. Heart failure is called congestive heart failure when fluid builds up in various parts of the body. So if you don’t yet have it but are at risk for it, you should make lifestyle changes now to prevent it!

Heart failure symptoms usually develop over weeks and months as your heart becomes weaker and less able to pump the blood that your body needs. Heart failure usually results in an enlarged heart (left ventricle).

Does your heart stop?

When you have heart failure, it doesn’t mean that your heart has stopped beating. It means that your heart isn’t pumping blood as it should. The heart keeps working, but the body’s need for blood and oxygen isn’t being met.

Heart failure can get worse if it’s not treated. It’s very important to do what your doctor tells you to do. When you make healthy changes, you can feel a lot better and enjoy life much more!

What can happen?
  • Your heart does not pump enough blood.
  • Blood backs up in your veins.
  • Fluid builds up, causing swelling in your feet, ankles and legs. This is called “edema.”
  • Your body holds too much fluid.
  • Fluid builds up in your lungs, called “pulmonary congestion.”
  • Your body does not get enough blood, food and oxygen.
What are the signs of heart failure?

• Shortness of breath, especially when lying down
• Tired, run-down feeling
• Coughing or wheezing, especially when you exercise or lie down
• Swelling in feet, ankles and legs
• Weight gain from fluid buildup
• Confusion or can’t think clearly

What are the causes?
The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD occurs when arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become narrowed by buildups of fatty deposits called plaque.

Other common risk factors that lead to heart failure are:
  • Past heart attack has done some damage to the heart muscle
  • Heart defects present since birth
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Diseases of the heart muscle
  • Infection of the heart and/or heart valves
  • Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmias)
  • Being overweight
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Certain types of chemotherapy
How is it treated?
  • Your doctor may give you medicine to strengthen your heart and water pills to help your body get rid of excess fluids.
  • Your doctor will recommend a low-sodium (salt) diet
  • Your may be provided oxygen for use at home.
  • Your doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes.
  • Surgery or cardiac devices may be needed, in some cases.

What can I do to manage my heart failure?
  • Follow your doctor’s advice.
  • Quit smoking, if you smoke.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed.
  • Weigh daily to check for weight gain caused by increased fluid.
  • Track your daily fluid intake.
  • Monitor your blood pressure daily.
  • Lose or maintain your weight based on your doctor's recommendations. 
  • Avoid or limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that’s low in salt and saturated fat.
  • Eat less salt and salty foods.
  • Be physically active.
  • Get adequate rest.
How can I learn more?
  1. Talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professionals. If you have heart disease or have had a stroke, members of your family also may be at higher risk. It’s very important for them to make changes now to lower their risk.
  2. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease.
  3. For information on stroke, call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) or visit us online at StrokeAssociation.org.
We have many other fact sheets and educational booklets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.

Knowledge is power, so Learn and Live!


Do you have questions or comments for your doctor or nurse?


Take a few minutes to write your own questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider. For example:

How much salt may I eat?

How much weight gain is too much?


©2012, American Heart Association.

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
How Can I Lower High Cholesterol?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Read "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?