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Silent Effects of Congestive Heart Failure

By Maureen Salamon

Updated November 01, 2008

(LifeWire) - By the time many people are diagnosed with congestive heart failure, their cardiac function has often been compromised for quite some time. (Read all about heart failure here.) That's because the leading risk factors for congestive heart failure,  including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, are also characterized by silent symptoms that surface slowly.

Affecting about 5 million Americans and contributing to 300,000 deaths each year, congestive heart failure -- simply also known as heart failure -- is diagnosed in about 550,000 people annually. The condition often develops gradually, and some people go years before experiencing any symptoms. Some symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath, are nonspecific and can be easy to dismiss. Most heart failure patients are senior citizens, and people older than age 40 have a 1-in-5 chance of developing it in their lifetime.

The heart is not pumping as efficiently as it should with congestive heart failure, which limits oxygen-rich blood from circulating normally. Thus, heart failure can wreak havoc on many organs, not just the heart, both before and after diagnosis. Also, when conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, precede it, the escalating stress on tissues may eventually affect every system in the body.

For example, the heart itself enlarges as it weakens, attempting to keep up with needed blood flow. As it enlarges, the walls thicken and blood and fluids build up in the lungs and veins, which cause internal swelling. This fluid backup can damage organs, particularly the kidneys, impeding their ability to rid the body of salt and water, and possibly cause them to fail.

The effects on the liver can also be silent, as its ability to filter toxins and produce essential proteins is hampered, and patients may lose their appetites or feel full prematurely. Overt symptoms of heart failure, such as gasping for breath (especially when lying down) or dramatic swelling, typically prompt the formal diagnosis.

There is no cure for heart failure, but there are many treatments available to target its specific causes and help offset the workload of the heart so that both the quality and length of a patient's life can be improved. (Read here about the treatment of heart failure.)


"Congestive Heart Failure." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 14 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4585>.

"Heart Information Center: Congestive Heart Failure." texasheartinstitute.org. Aug. 2008. Texas Heart Institute. 14 Oct. 2008 <http://www.texasheartinstitute.org/hic/topics/cond/CHF.cfm>.

"Heart Failure." nih.gov. 2008. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. 14 Oct. 2008 <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/heartfailure.html>.

"Heart Failure Fact Sheet." cdc.gov. 30 Aug. 2006. Centers for Disease Control. 14 Oct. 2008 <http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/library/fs_heart_failure.htm>.  

Murphy, Aengus, and John J.V. McMurray. "Heart Failure: Are We Neglecting the Majority?" European Heart Journal (2007). 14 Oct. 2008 <http://eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/ehl573v1>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has written for newspapers, websites and hospitals.

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