Myths & Misconceptions About Heart Failure

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2019

A heart failure (HF) diagnosis can be frightening. There are common myths and misconceptions about the risk factors for HF. Understanding the facts can help you lead a heart-healthy lifestyle, decrease your risks for developing the condition, or manage it if you already have it. Learn the truth about these myths.1

Heart failure means my heart will stop working

Having HF doesn’t mean your heart is about to stop working. It means the heart is having difficulty pumping blood through the circulatory system.2 People with HF can experience shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling, and other symptoms. They can benefit from treatment including medications and lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise.1,2

Heart failure is the same as a heart attack

HF and having a heart attack are two different medical conditions. Heart failure is a chronic condition characterized by the heart’s inability to pump enough blood to nourish the body. A heart attack is a singular incident that comes on suddenly and causes damage to the heart muscle.1,2 The heart muscle is damaged because of a lack of blood flow through a narrowed or blocked artery. A heart attack can, however, cause heart failure, making the heart work harder to circulate blood.2

Heart failure affects men more than women

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in men and women in the US over age 65.3 Symptoms of heart failure and heart attack can be different in men and women. It is important to understand the differences. Women are diagnosed with heart conditions less often than men. This is in part because they often get routine care from an OB/GYN.4 It is important for women to have a complete checkup from an internist beginning in young adulthood and regularly after that.

Older people are the ones who get heart failure

Although heart failure is typically associated with older people, it can develop at any age. In fact, one-third of all Americans have some kind of heart disease.1 Some infants are born with congenital heart defects which cause HF. People of any age can develop an infection or illness that can cause heart damage.2,3 Lifestyle choices can also increase your risk of developing HF. Eating well, getting enough exercise and sleep, and managing stress can all improve general health and avoid the development of heart problems as well as obesity and type 2 diabetes.1,3

Physical activity is limited with heart failure

People with HF can benefit from regular, vigorous exercise.2 Leading a sedentary lifestyle can cause a decline in your general health.5 Aerobic activity strengthens the heart muscle and improves blood flow which contributes to your general health.5 Always get approval from your doctor when changing your exercise regimen, especially as you increase the frequency and duration from moderate to vigorous activity.6 Remember, smoking is harmful to your blood vessels and can impede your energy and ability to exercise.

Genetics cause heart failure

Heart disease may run in families, but just because your parents or grandparents had it doesn’t mean you will develop HF. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing it.1,3 Understanding and managing your personal risk factors may prevent HF. Early identification of any medical issues can result in prompt action or intervention, reducing the risk of progression.3 Monitoring your cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, body mass index (BMI), general diet, and exercise can help you stay healthy.6

Heart failure always has symptoms

You can’t always feel the presence of HF symptoms.1,6 The symptoms of heart failure are present when fluid has backed up into the tissues of the body. If you do not have extra fluid, then you may not have symptoms. For example, you don’t feel hypertension (high blood pressure) or high cholesterol. High blood pressure is referred to as the silent killer because it often isn’t identified until someone has a heart attack or stroke.1,6 Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and take steps to seek treatment early to avoid more serious medical problems.1

Chest pain or pressure is associated with having a heart attack, but there are other subtle symptoms that may be present without an elephant sitting on your chest.1 Other symptoms include shortness of breath, feeling sick to your stomach or lightheaded, and pain or discomfort in the arms, jaw, neck or back.1

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