Congestive Heart Failure & Life Expectancy

Congestive heart failure is one of those phrases that sounds like a death sentence for those involved. In reality, there are ways that doctors and patients can improve a situation if they catch the disease early enough. Congestive heart failure comes in stages.

As it progresses, patients will see symptoms worsen and their prognosis decline. But, those that understand the risks and signs early enough have a much better chance. That is why it is vital that we all get to know this illness a little better. We may have older relatives displaying symptoms that are in need of medical attention. We may even have early signs ourselves that we hadn’t spotted.

Here we will look at some of the most important facts and figures about this disease. We will look at the signs of congestive heart failure and the 4 stages that are involved. This is important to help you understand the progression of the disease and its impact on our loved ones.

We will also look at some of the potential causes, possible treatment options, and the prognosis. The information here refers to the disease more generally. This is what you should expect in the broadest sense. Individual cases can differ.

Before we discuss the signs, let’s consider what we mean by congestive heart failure.

Those of us that are unfamiliar with cardiac health issues may not understand this term heart failure. It is easy to assume that heart failure is the same as a cardiac arrest. But, this isn’t the case at all.

Heart failure doesn’t mean that the heart stops beating or that a patient is about to die. It simply means that the heart is failing to work in the way it should. There may be a failure in the cardiac rhythm, which interferes with blood output. The muscles may not strong enough to pump the blood in an effective manner. The signs of heart failure are signs of weakness that may eventually worsen and result in further illness and death.

Signs That You May Have CHF

There are lots of small symptoms that people experience that can be indicative of developing congestive heart failure. A rapid or irregular heartbeat is a possible sign, as is an enlarged heart.

However, there are also many other signs that manifest across the body. Some people suffer from weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. These issues can lead to an inability to exercise, which in turn may lead to weight gain and obesity issues. Weight gain may also come in the form of fluid retention. People with signs of congestive heart failure also find themselves with persistent coughs, an increased need to urinate at night, swelling of the legs and problems concentrating.

As you can see, there are lots of potential problems here that we all need to take notice of. Isolated signs, such as fatigue and dizziness, may be part of another illness. If doctors rule out other causes, and symptoms persist, then it may be time to reassess a relative for congestive heart failure. On that note, it is important to understand the four stages of CHF.

What Are the 4 Stages of Congestive Heart Failure?

There are 4 stages of heart failure – in a broad sense. Doctors can categorize patients symptoms, needs and prognosis in one of these four categories.

  1. Class I is very mild. Patients don’t tend to experience much in the way of symptoms during physical activity. A simple change in lifestyle and medication could help to manage the condition before it progresses.
  2. Class II sees things worsen a little. There may be a little more shortness of breath and fatigue during physical activity. Again, action taken here through monitoring and lifestyle changes could help to lessen the problem.
  3. Class III sees the disease progress further. Abilities during physical activity decline further and palpitation and shortness of breath can occur with even mild exercise. This is where care and treatment become more of a problem. Lifestyle changes and medication may not be enough to manage or reverse the issue. Doctors can advise patients about possible risks of heart failure and more extreme measures.
  4.  Then there is Class IV heart failure. Here the symptoms remain, even during rest. Palpitations, breathlessness, fatigue and other issues seem ever-present. This is when there is no possibility of a cure. Doctors can work with patients to improve quality of life and work towards the best possible palliative care option.

What are the Last Signs of Congestive Heart Failure?

Some doctors and health care providers may talk about the “last signs” or “end-of-life” signs of congestive heart failure. These are the symptoms that occur when patients are nearing the end and have little chance of recovery.

  1. Dyspnea – The shortness of breath experienced throughout the stages of CHF worsens and is present during rest.
  2. Chronic coughing – This shortness of breath is often accompanied by a chronic cough.
  3. Increased heart rate.
  4. Edema – the legs begin to swell up as fluid builds in the muscles.
  5. Confusion/Delirium – end-of-life patients frequently deal with this sense of disorientation
  6. Loss of appetite – again, this is common in end-of-life care.

Causes of CHF

There are a number of reasons why individuals develop congestive heart failure. Many will do so because they have poor heart health. Faults in their heart valves, previous damage from heart attacks and other causes of enlargement can increase the likelihood of congestive heart failure. Then there are those that struggle with high blood pressure, myocarditis, abnormal heart rhythms, and congenital heart defects.

There are also other illnesses and conditions that are not related to cardiac health that can have an impact on congestive heart failure. Some people with chronic diseases find they have an increased chance of developing congestive heart failure. This includes those with diabetes, thyroid issues, iron deficiencies, and HIV.

Diagnosing Congestive Heart Failure

The first step is to take some blood tests to look for chemical changes, as well as some chest x-rays to see the condition of the heart and lungs. An electrocardiogram can also help doctors see the heart rhythm, while an echocardiogram looks at the shape and output of the hearts. Stress tests on a treadmill are another option, sometimes with a mask to measure breathing rates and output. Others may use CT and MRI imaging tools where applicable.

Treatment of CHF

Can heart failure get better? This is a common question for anyone diagnosed with the problem, or for those trying to help a loved one. As you can see from the stages above, the answer will depend on the severity of the condition and symptoms that are present.

There will be people with Class I CHF that are able to manage their condition pretty well. They can keep things under control by working on some of the underlying causes. People with Class III CHF may be able to slow the progression of the disease and buy some time with the right drugs and surgical options. Those with Class IV CHF have progressed too far and simply need palliative care.

What Drugs Can Help When Dealing with CHF?

Some doctors will prescribe ACE inhibitors to widen blood vessels and lower blood pressure, An alternative here is an Angiotensin II receptor blocker for those that can’t handle the ACE inhibitors. Others will use Beta blockers for blood pressure and to improve heart function and rhythm. These help to keep heart function under control, which can reduce the risk of sudden cardiac events.

There is also some potential in the use of diuretics for water retention and urination issues. Supplementation of magnesium and potassium can then counter the effect of the diuretics. Digitalis may also help to slow the heartbeat and strengthen muscle contractions.

What About Surgery?

Some patients may undergo coronary bypass surgery to bypass a blocked artery and improve blood flow. Others may have a heart valve replacement or Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators – like a pacemaker – to keep the heart at a normal rhythm.

What Foods Should be Avoided with Congestive Heart Failure?

Many people with signs of CHF will also turn to their diet as a way of treating the illness. This is a great way to reduce the effect of obesity and to improve cardiac health more generally. The first step is to create a healthier diet with fewer processed foods and more lean, real meats and plenty of vegetables. Doctors also recommend reducing sodium and salt intakes where possible. Easy ways to do this are to watch your consumption of salty snacks, condiments, and takeaways.

The Prognosis of CHF

There are positive and negative outlooks here when talking about the prognosis and the life expectancy of people with CHF. On a positive side, ongoing medical advancements and screening options mean a better chance of catching the disease early. Patients also have lots more options in treatment to help keep the disease under control. This means that they may have more time left with loved ones than people in a similar situation decades ago.

It is also important to remember that every individual is different. Some will be able to beat the odds and doctor estimates with the right course of action. However, we also have to be realistic and look at the more negative side. Survival rates are low and many patients with advanced CHF won’t have long left.

So What is the Survival Rate & Life Expectancy of Congestive Heart Failure?

Life expectancy rates vary depending on the class of the condition, the age of the patient and other medical or genetic factors. More generally, it is estimated that 50% of people with CHF have another 5 years to life. Just 10% will go on to live another 10 years.

This all sounds bleak, but it is important to be aware of the realistic estimates. Some patients assume that outlook is far better than it really is. This may be a case of denial or simply the fact that so many people deal with congestive heart failure. Relatives may need to keep a more realistic point of view to provide the best care.

Prevention of CHF

The best way to prevent congestive heart failure and the symptoms that come with it is to take proactive steps to improve your health and fitness. Those that take control over the root causes can limit the likelihood of developing congestive heart failure in the future. This means working on reducing blood pressure, dealing with diabetes and other related illnesses and losing weight to control obesity levels.

Keep in touch with medical staff while dealing with congestive heart failure.

Anyone that feels that they are at risk of congestive heart failure, or that is exhibiting some of these symptoms, should talk to a doctor. There is a good chance that the signs experienced may be down to another cause, such as chemical or hormone imbalances, infections or other illnesses.

However, there is also that chance that you may be at the start of congestive heart failure. The sooner you can pinpoint the cause, the easier it is to treat the issue and potentially reverse some effects. The sooner you do this, the better the outcome and prognosis for a longer life expectancy.

If you are diagnosed with congestive heart failure – whether chronic or acute – you need to keep an open line of communication with health care providers. Work with them to make the right changes to your weight, blood pressure, and lifestyle. Tell them when symptoms worsen or if new ones appear. This can be a signal of the disease progressing.

The more you know, the better able you are to help.

No family member wants to talk about end-of-life signs and other issues of heart failure. It is horrible to have to consider the progression of congestive heart failure through those four stages.

Yet, knowledge and preparation is power. Those of us that spot the symptoms early enough have a chance to improve a prognosis and work on recovery plans. Talk to your doctor, educate yourself and see what you can do to prevent CHF from becoming a death sentence.