Early diagnosis and treatment can help people who have heart failure live longer, more active lives. Treatment for heart failure depends on the type and severity of the heart failure.
The goals of treatment for all stages of heart failure include:
- Treating the condition’s underlying cause, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes
- Reducing symptoms
- Stopping the heart failure from getting worse
- Increasing your lifespan and improving your quality of life
Your doctor may recommend heart-healthy lifestyle changes if you have heart failure. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes include:
Your doctor may recommend a heart-healthy eating plan, which should include:
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, about twice a week
- Fruits, such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes
- Legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
- Vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and carrots
- Whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and corn tortillas
When following a heart-healthy diet, you should avoid eating:
- A lot of red meat
- Palm and coconut oils
- Sugary foods and beverages
Two nutrients in your diet make blood cholesterol levels rise:
- Saturated fat—found mostly in foods that come from animals
- Trans fat (trans fatty acids)—found in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats, such as stick margarine; baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, and pies; crackers; frostings; and coffee creamers. Some trans fats also occur naturally in animal fats and meats.
Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, only 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. Food labels list the amounts of saturated fat. To help you stay on track, here are some examples:
If you eat:
Try to eat no more than:
1,200 calories a day
8 grams of saturated fat a day
1,500 calories a day
10 grams of saturated fat a day
1,800 calories a day
12 grams of saturated fat a day
2,000 calories a day
13 grams of saturated fat a day
2,500 calories a day
17 grams of saturated fat a day
Not all fats are bad. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually help lower blood cholesterol levels.
Some sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are:
- Corn, sunflower, and soybean oils
- Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts
- Olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils
- Peanut butter
- Salmon and trout
You should try to limit the amount of sodium that you eat. This means choosing and preparing foods that are lower in salt and sodium. Try to use low-sodium and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or while cooking. Food labels tell you what you need to know about choosing foods that are lower in sodium. Try to eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more.
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension
Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan if you have high blood pressure. The DASH eating plan focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart healthy and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium and salt.
The DASH eating plan is a good heart-healthy eating plan, even for those who don’t have high blood pressure. Read more about DASH.
It’s important for people who have heart failure to take in the correct amounts and types of liquids. Consuming too much liquid can worsen heart failure. Also, if you have heart failure, you shouldn’t drink alcohol. Talk with your doctor about what amounts and types of liquids you should have each day.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health and can lower your risk for heart failure and coronary heart disease. Aim for a Healthy Weight by following a heart-healthy eating plan and keeping physically active.
Knowing your body mass index (BMI) helps you find out if you’re a healthy weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. To figure out your BMI, check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) online BMI calculator or talk to your doctor. A BMI:
- Below 18.5 is a sign that you are underweight.
- Between 18.5 and 24.9 is in the normal range.
- Between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.
- Of 30 or more is considered obese.
A general goal to aim for is a BMI below 25. Your doctor or health care provider can help you set an appropriate BMI goal.
Measuring waist circumference helps screen for possible health risks. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This risk may be higher with a waist size that is greater than 35 inches for women or greater than 40 inches for men. To learn how to measure your waist, visit Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk.
If you’re overweight or obese, try to lose weight. A loss of just 3 percent to 5 percent of your current weight can lower your triglycerides, blood glucose, and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Greater amounts of weight loss can improve blood pressure readings, lower LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol.
Routine physical activity can lower many coronary heart disease risk factors, including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight. Physical activity also can lower your risk for diabetes and raise your HDL cholesterol level. HDL is the “good” cholesterol that helps prevent coronary heart disease.
Everyone should try to participate in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week, or vigorous aerobic exercise for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is any exercise in which your heart beats faster and you use more oxygen than usual. The more active you are, the more you will benefit. Participate in aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time spread throughout the week.
Read more about physical activity at:
- Physical Activity and Your Heart
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
Talk with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan. Ask your doctor how much and what kinds of physical activity are safe for you.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking can raise your risk for coronary heart disease and heart attack and worsen heart failure. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.
If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.
Read more about quitting smoking at Smoking and Your Heart.
Your doctor will prescribe medicines based on the type of heart failure you have, how severe it is, and your response to certain medicines. The following medicines are commonly used to treat heart failure:
- ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart. They also may reduce the risk of a future heart attack.
- Aldosterone antagonists trigger the body to remove excess sodium through urine. This lowers the volume of blood that the heart must pump.
- Angiotensin receptor blockers relax your blood vessels and lower blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
- Beta blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
- Digoxin makes the heart beat stronger and pump more blood.
- Diuretics (fluid pills) help reduce fluid buildup in your lungs and swelling in your feet and ankles.
- Isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine hydrochloride helps relax your blood vessels so your heart doesn’t work as hard to pump blood. Studies have shown that this medicine can reduce the risk of death in blacks. More studies are needed to find out whether this medicine will benefit other racial groups.
Take all medicines regularly, as your doctor prescribes. Don’t change the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to. You should still follow a heart healthy lifestyle, even if you take medicines to treat your heart failure.
You should watch for signs that heart failure is getting worse. For example, weight gain may mean that fluids are building up in your body. Ask your doctor how often you should check your weight and when to report weight changes.
Getting medical care for other related conditions is important. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, work with your health care team to control these conditions. Have your blood sugar level and blood pressure checked. Talk with your doctor about when you should have tests and how often to take measurements at home.
Try to avoid respiratory infections like the flu and pneumonia. Talk with your doctor or nurse about getting flu and pneumonia vaccines.
Many people who have severe heart failure may need treatment in a hospital from time to time. Your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy, which can be given in a hospital or at home.
As heart failure worsens, lifestyle changes and medicines may no longer control your symptoms. You may need a medical procedure or surgery.
In heart failure, the right and left sides of the heart may no longer contract at the same time. This disrupts the heart’s pumping. To correct this problem, your doctor might implant a cardiac resynchronization therapy device (a type of pacemaker) near your heart. This device helps both sides of your heart contract at the same time, which can decrease heart failure symptoms.
Some people who have heart failure have very rapid, irregular heartbeats. Without treatment, these heartbeats can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Your doctor might implant an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) near your heart to solve this problem. An ICD checks your heart rate and uses electrical pulses to correct irregular heart rhythms.
People who have severe heart failure symptoms at rest, despite other treatments, may need:
- A mechanical heart pump, such as a left ventricular assist device. This device helps pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. You may use a heart pump until you have surgery or as a long-term treatment.
- Heart transplant. A heart transplant is an operation in which a person’s diseased heart is replaced with a healthy heart from a deceased donor. Heart transplants are done as a life-saving measure for end-stage heart failure when medical treatment and less drastic surgery have failed.