Elizabeth Taylor Dies. What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Legendary actress and AIDS humanitarian Elizabeth Taylor passed away this morning at the age of 79. She died from congestive heart failure, which according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a new epidemic in the United States. It is the most common diagnosis in people age 65 and older admitted to the hospital. Each year there are an estimated 400,000 new cases.

The American Heart Association defines congestive heart failure as a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to the rest of the body

Congestive heart failure can develop when the heart is damaged or weakened because of other health problems. Statistics from the Framingham Heart Study show that it is twice as common in people with high blood pressure and five times greater in people who’ve had a heart attack. One reason behind the increase in new cases is that more people with heart disease are surviving and living longer, which increases their odds of developing congestive heart failure.

Health problems that can lead to congestive heart failure

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Previous heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Faulty heart valves
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Chronic diseases such as diabetes, severe anemia, thyroid disease, emphysema, lupus, and excess iron in the blood (hemochromatosis)

When the heart can’t pump normally, it will usually try valiantly to compensate.

  • It gets bigger
  • It becomes more muscular
  • It pumps faster

The rest of body joins in the struggle.

  • Blood vessels narrow to keep blood pressure up
  • Blood is diverted away from less important organs and tissues to make sure enough gets to vital organs — the brain and heart

The body can compensate for years, but eventually it wears out and symptoms develop.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Excess fluid in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Increased heart rate

Congestive heart failure can be treated with rest, diet, and medications, but in some people, the heart can become so damaged over time that a heart transplant is necessary.

The NIH has an interactive tutorial on congestive heart failure if you’d like to learn more.