Physician holding a model heart

Over six million U.S. adults are living with heart failure — a chronic, progressive disease that limits the heart’s ability to keep up with the body's workload, according to the American Heart Association. The sound of a “heart failure” diagnosis might initially strike panic or fear in patients and loved ones. However, heart failure does not mean the heart isn't working. Instead, heart failure signifies that the heart is not working as efficiently as it should be.

“Despite the daunting name, patients with heart failure can live normal lives if they engage in proper treatment and management,” says Antoine Sakr, MD, medical director of heart failure and transplant at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute. Below, he outlines some top ways for patients to self-manage heart failure.

Brush up on heart failure

Research shows that patients who learn how to recognize and address heart failure symptoms are more likely to manage their condition appropriately and avoid serious consequences such as repeated hospitalizations. Sakr suggests carving out time to understand the basics of heart failure, including causes, symptoms, methods of diagnosis, disease progression, and types of treatment.

Keep up with medications

Taking medications for heart failure as prescribed is critical for treatment, Sakr says. Medications alleviate symptoms, improve energy levels, and even stop or slow the progress of the disease. Keeping track of medications will allow you to organize a refill before they run out, Sakr says, sparing you a lapse in treatment. He also says to bring all your medications to office visits. If any medications’ side effects feel bothersome, Sakr advises telling your provider, who may be able to adjust medication dosage, frequency, or type.

Look out for signs of extra fluid

Many heart failure patients experience fluid buildup and water retention because the weakened heart pumps less blood to the kidneys. Primary symptoms of fluid buildup in the body include shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, problems sleeping, and swelling of the feet, ankles, or stomach. Sakr recommends speaking with your provider if you notice one or more of these symptoms.

Weigh yourself daily

Sakr advises patients with heart failure to weigh themselves on a scale at the same time of day every day. Sudden weight change may be the first sign of fluid buildup and signal worsening heart failure. Patients should call their clinic when they experience sudden weight gain, Sakr says — this means a weight gain of three pounds overnight or five pounds in a week.

Limit sodium and fluid intake

Salt or sodium increases fluid retention and blood pressure, further straining the heart. This fluid buildup can induce or worsen symptoms like shortness of breath or swelling. For this reason, Sakr recommends reducing sodium intake to no more than 3 grams per day and drinking no more than two quarts of fluid (eight cups) daily. LLU Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation program works directly with heart failure patients to build good habits around nutrition and offers heart-healthy cooking classes. For additional guidance, The American Heart Association offers an array of sodium-smart recipes and a sodium tracking guide.

Increase regular physical activity

Activity is essential for maintaining your heart health and strengthening the heart, Sakr says. Physical activity can be any activity that makes you move your body and burns calories, he says, such as yard work, walking, or playing sports. You and your provider should discuss your routine activity and tailor heart-healthy exercise plans to match the level of your heart health. You may work together to gradually increase your physical activity over time.

Cease smoking

Sakr says quitting is one of the most significant changes you can make for heart failure management and your overall health if you smoke. Smoking increases both heart rate and blood pressure, and deprives the body of oxygen that those with heart failure especially need, Sakr says. He says to speak to your physician about smoking cessation resources and programs.

Communicate with your provider

Fostering a direct and open line of communication with your provider is vital for heart failure patients, Sakr says. Studies show that improved provider-patient communication has resulted in a 31% decrease in rehospitalization and a 16% decrease in mortality among heart failure patients. It is crucial to call your provider if you feel more tired than usual, have a loss of appetite, sense dizziness or faintness, have heart palpitations, or experience vomiting and diarrhea.

Over 70% of repeated hospitalizations in heart failure patients could be prevented through better self-management, according to the American Heart Association. Sakr urges patients with heart failure and their loved ones to educate themselves about the disease and take an active role in their care to improve their heart health and live a safe, happy life.

The Heart Failure Program at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute aims to provide patients and their families with the education and support they need to stay healthy and improve their quality of life. Learn more about the program and services offered to heart failure patients online or call 1-800-468-5432 to make an appointment.