May 6, 2024

Understanding Heart Failure

What You Need to Know
Dr. Debra Isaac is a heart failure specialist
Dr. Debra Isaac is a heart failure specialist at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute Photo Supplied

Heart failure is a condition that affects about 750,000 Canadians. It's a term used to describe when the heart doesn't pump blood as effectively as it should, leading to a myriad of symptoms and potential complications. In this article, we sat down with heart failure specialist, Dr. Debra Isaac, to explore the basics of heart failure, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment options and daily management strategies.

What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle becomes weakened or damaged, resulting in an inability to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. As a result, the body's organs and tissues may not receive an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients, leading to a range of symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Heart Failure

Symptoms of heart failure can vary from person to person but often include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Decreased energy and strength
  • Swelling in the feet, legs, and abdomen
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

It's essential to note that not everyone with heart failure will experience all these symptoms, and they may start off mildly before progressing over time. Sometimes patients are diagnosed with and treated for asthma or pneumonia before the diagnosis of heart failure is finally made. 

Causes of Heart Failure

Heart failure can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart valve disorders
  • Viral infections affecting the heart muscle
  • Toxins such as excessive alcohol consumption, drugs like cocaine
  • Certain medications, like those used in chemotherapy
  • Genetic predisposition

People with high blood pressure and diabetes are at a higher risk of developing heart failure, especially if those diseases aren’t well controlled. 


Diagnosing heart failure typically involves a thorough medical history, physical examination and diagnostic tests such as an echocardiogram, which provides detailed images of the heart's structure, function and pressures within the heart. 


The prognosis for heart failure varies depending on factors such as the patient's age, overall health, the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. While statistics may sound daunting, with proper medical management and lifestyle modifications, many individuals with heart failure can lead fulfilling lives for decades.

Treatment Options

Treatment for heart failure aims to relieve symptoms, improve heart function and address underlying causes. This may include:

  • Goal Directed Medical Therapya well-studied group of medications that are the standard of care for heart failure. 
  • Medical devices like pacemakers, LVADS or implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs)
  • Surgical interventions such as coronary artery bypass surgery or heart valve repair or replacement
  • Advanced therapies like mechanical circulatory support or heart transplantation

Perhaps the most important aspect of treatment is making sure that patients are educated about heart failure, have access to ongoing medical support, and can take an active role in their management. 

Daily Management

Managing heart failure on a daily basis requires proactive involvement from both patients and healthcare providers. Education, support and ongoing contact is critical. Heart failure patients can expect to be taught to:  

  • Monitor and recognize symptoms and know how to react if things change
  • Weigh themselves daily to monitor fluid retention
  • Adhere to prescribed medications and report any concerns or issues
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet low in sodium
  • Engage in regular physical activity as recommended by their healthcare provider
  • Avoid smoking and avoid or limit alcohol consumption

Advice for Newly Diagnosed Individuals

Receiving a diagnosis of heart failure can be overwhelming, so it's essential to seek education, support, and guidance from healthcare professionals. Don't hesitate to ask questions, voice concerns and actively participate in your treatment plan. Remember that with proper management, many individuals can live well with heart failure for years to come.

Additional Resources

For further information and support, please see the following resources: