How can I stop my heart failure from getting worse?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’ve been diagnosed with heart failure. Thankfully, it is still in the early stages. What can I do to keep it from getting worse?

DEAR READER:

The function of the blood is to carry nutrition to every cell in the body and to carry away waste from the cell. The function of the heart is to keep pumping blood so that the blood reaches every cell in the body.

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump efficiently enough to meet the body’s need for blood. As a result, tissues and organs don’t get enough nutrition, and fluid builds up in the lungs and tissues.

The first symptom of heart failure often is fatigue. As the condition progresses, a person may also experience rapid heartbeat, worsening shortness of breath (caused by fluid buildup in the lungs) and fluid buildup in the legs and abdomen.

Fortunately, you can help slow the progress of heart failure, avoid hospitalizations and improve your quality of life:

TAKE YOUR MEDICINES. Most people with heart failure need a three-drug regimen, including diuretics (pills to make you pass water). In tomorrow’s column, we’ll talk about medicines for heart failure in more detail.

STEP ON A SCALE REGULARLY. Extra fluid in your body means extra weight. If, because of heart failure, your body is retaining fluid, you can gain several pounds a day without adding any fat. So check with your doctor on how often you should step on a scale, and when you should call him or her if you gain weight.

CHANGE YOUR DIET. Limit your sodium intake to two grams a day. The main source of sodium in our diet is salt, which tends to hold fluid in your body. So avoid salty foods and adding salt to your foods. You can buy a potassium salt to sprinkle on food that accents the taste but doesn’t add sodium to your body. Also limit your intake of fluids to about two quarts per day. Closely monitoring sodium and fluids may allow you to lower your dose of diuretic medicine.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Call your doctor right away if you notice any new or strange symptoms. Rapid heartbeat, dizzy spells, fainting, worsening shortness of breath or sudden changes in your weight all may be signs that your heart failure is getting worse.

PAY ATTENTION TO OTHER MEDICAL CONDITIONS. Make sure your blood pressure is under control, for example. High blood pressure can set off a downward spiral with heart failure.

EXERCISE REGULARLY. For people with heart failure, regular aerobic exercise should be a high priority for two reasons. First, it strengthens your heart so that blood and oxygen move around your body more efficiently. Second, exercise can serve as an early warning system. Say you are suddenly short of breath doing something you were able to do easily last week: You’ll know to call your doctor.

LOSE WEIGHT IF YOU ARE OVERWEIGHT. Cutting out 500 calories a day can lead to slow, steady weight loss.

More on heart failure tomorrow.