Never Ignore the Symptoms of Early Heart Failure

Common Sense Health – W. Gifford-Jones MD and Diana Gifford-Jones

Years ago, after interviewing Dr. Michael McDonald, I asked, “Will you be my cardiologist?” Now, as I reach my 100th year I’m grateful his sound advice has kept me alive. He’s associated with the world class Peter Munk Cardiac Center affiliated with the University of Toronto. During my visit he stressed that more patients would be living longer if they reported to their doctors the early signs of heart failure. Prevention is always better than cure.

Never forget this fact. We are all living longer and so is our heart. Today, if you’re over the age of 65, heart failure is the most common reason for being admitted to hospital. And when heart failure starts, this means a life expectancy of 2.1 to 5 years.

I never fail to be amazed when I listen to a patient’s heartbeat. It only stops beating when life ends. In the meantime, by the age 70 this remarkable machine has been beating 2.5 billion times without any holiday. What other organ of the body would agree to such punishment?

What can go wrong to trigger heart failure? The main cause is a previous heart attack that has caused death to part of the heart’s muscle. This injury reduces the heart’s ability to pump adequate amount of blood to the rest of the body.

But there are several other less obvious factors, such as birth defects, injured heart valves due to the infection by rheumatic fever, a blood infection that scars heart valves, hypertension, and aging.

What are the symptoms of early heart failure?  Patients may complain of early fatigue or notice a lingering slight cough. Later on, there may be shortness of breath and swelling of the ankles. Or an x-ray of the lungs done for other reasons shows an enlargement of the heart.

What can be done to increase the length of life when the body begins to falter? Timing is essential, as injured muscle cannot be restored. Drugs are available that decrease the heart rate, thereby decreasing the workload of the heart. Water pills will also decrease the disabling symptoms of heart failure.

But the larger question is why have heart failure and other forms of cardiovascular disease become the number one cause of death?

The blunt answer is the ongoing pandemic of both obesity and type 2 diabetes. It’s well known that 95 percent of type 2 diabetes is due to obesity. Just look around you to see what’s happening and it is shocking.

Type 2 diabetes is also notorious for causing hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). These hard arteries cause extra strain on the heart’s muscle. It’s the prime example of the Gifford-Jones Law that one heath problem leads to another and another.

Dr. Michael McDonald and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre cannot fight these diseases alone. Rather, it will take Draconian measures to achieve increased physical activity and watching calories to reverse the obesity bandwagon that’s the ultimate cause of it all.

President Abraham Lincoln sounded the alarm years ago. He reminded people that they have two legs and to use them. We would add, buy a bathroom scale and step on it daily to prevent surprises.

What about me? At 100 years I’ll need to be alert and watch for shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, swelling of ankles or a slight cough that fails to end. Make sure you also report these early signs of heart failure to your doctor.

Shakespeare was right when be reminded Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”

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