Heart failure is a disease that affects approximately 6.5 million people in the United States. It is one of the most common conditions in people over the age of 65, and the incidence of heart failure is growing with an increasingly elderly population.

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump blood effectively through the body. The chambers of the heart stretch to try to hold more blood, but over time, the muscle becomes too weak and cannot pump enough blood to keep up with the body’s needs. Unlike a heart attack, heart failure happens slowly. While it is a chronic and progressive disease, people can live with it for many years if they receive proper treatment.

Types of Heart Failure

There are two main types of heart failure: systolic and diastolic. If you have systolic heart failure, the heart does not squeeze strong enough to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. If you have diastolic heart failure, your heart squeezes normally, but the main pumping chamber is stiff and cannot relax properly. This means less blood can get into the heart and blood pressure increases in the lungs.

The causes of heart failure are other conditions that damage the heart, including:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • Genetic factors
  • Heart attack
  • Heart valve disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation of heart muscle
  • Kidney disease

Lifestyle factors can also play a role in risk, including:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Leading a high-stress life

Heart Failure Symptoms

Common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath from simple activities
  • Trouble breathing at rest
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing

These can be subtle and are easily mistaken for other illnesses so a heart failure diagnosis can be missed in the early stages. This unfortunately delays many people from seeing a cardiologist. Early diagnosis and treatment of heart failure gives you the best chance at prolonging your life.


To test for and diagnose heart failure, your doctor will review your medical history, talk to you about your symptoms and perform a physical examination.

To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor may order some of the following tests:

  • Blood tests — These tests check for signs of diseases that can affect the heart.
  • Chest X-ray — X-rays provide imagery that allows the doctor to check the state of your lungs and heart.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — In this test, electrodes are attached to the chest and are used to provide imagery of the heart pumping function and valve abnormalities.
  • Echocardiogram and Cardiac MRI — These tests provide a more sophisticated, detailed image of the heart.
  • Stress test — A stress test is used to provide insight into your heart health, specifically by measuring how it responds to exertion.


Treatment for heart failure depends on the cause and the severity of the condition. Medication can reduce symptoms of heart failure, slow its progression and improve quality of life.

New, implantable remote-monitoring technology, called CardioMEMS™, can help you manage your symptoms at home and allows your doctor to detect a decline in your condition even before symptoms occurs. Your cardiologist can adjust your medications and prevent a hospitalization.

As heart failure progresses, surgical therapy may be necessary. In some cases, coronary artery bypass surgery, valve repair or placement of a pacemaker may improve your heart’s function.

If your condition hasn't improved enough with medications or other surgeries or if your symptoms worsen despite the treatment and you repeatedly are admitted to the hospital, it may be time to make an appointment with an advanced heart failure and transplant specialist.

Our team of advanced heart failure specialists provides multiple innovative treatments for people with advanced heart failure, such as heart transplantation, and placement of mechanical devices, including ventricular assist devices and total artificial hearts.

A heart transplant is a surgical operation in which a diseased, failing heart is replaced with a healthy donor heart. While heart transplantation is a major operation, your chance of survival is good with appropriate follow-up care. Most people who receive a heart transplantation enjoy a good quality of life. Unfortunately, the wait time for heart transplantation can be long since there are more people who need hearts than donors. Finding a donor depends on your size, your blood type and how sick you are. If you condition is too serious to wait for a donor heart, your doctors might recommend that you have a device implanted to support your heart while you wait for a donor organ. While these devices can serve as a bridge to transplant for some patients, for others these devices are used as a long-term treatment option.

The Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Comprehensive Heart Failure and Transplant Program offers the full spectrum of treatment options, and we are one of the fastest growing advanced heart failure and LVAD programs in the nation. Advancements in cardiac transplantation and mechanical support devices are an important focus of our cardiac research, as well the as the development of new medications to treat heart failure.

With proper treatment, it is possible for heart failure patients to lead a more normal life.

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