Heart failure occurs when the heart loses
its ability to pump enough blood through the body. Usually, the loss
in pumping action is a symptom of an underlying heart problem, such as
coronary artery disease.
The term heart failure suggests a
sudden and complete stop of heart activity. But, actually, the heart
does not suddenly stop. Rather, heart failure usually develops slowly,
often over years, as the heart gradually loses its pumping ability and
works less efficiently. Some people may not become aware of their
condition until symptoms appear years after their heart began its
How serious the condition is depends on
how much pumping capacity the heart has lost. Nearly everyone loses
some pumping capacity as he or she ages. But the loss is significantly
more in heart failure and often results from a
heart attack or other disease that
damages the heart.
The severity of the condition
determines the impact it has on a person's life. At one end of the
spectrum, the mild form of heart failure may have little effect on a
person's life; at the other end, severe heart failure can interfere
with even simple activities and prove fatal. Between those extremes,
treatment often helps people
lead full lives.
But all forms of heart failure, even
the mildest, are a serious health problem, which must be treated. To
improve their chance of living longer, patients must take care of
themselves, see their physician regularly, and closely follow
Between 2 to 3 million Americans have
heart failure, and 400,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The
condition is slightly more common among men than women and is twice as
common among African Americans as whites.