Heart Failure in the Elderly

In heart failure, the heart cannot pump enough blood through the body. The heart cannot fill with enough blood or pump with enough force, or both. Heart failure develops over time as the pumping action of the heart gets weaker. It can affect either the right, the left, or both sides of the heart. Heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped working or is about to stop working.

Heart failure can also be called congestive heart failure, systolic heart failure, diastolic heart failure, left-sided heart failure, or right-sided heart failure. In most cases, heart failure affects the left side of the heart when it cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. When heart failure affects the right side, the heart cannot pump enough blood to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen.

In normal hearts, blood vessels called veins bring oxygen-poor blood from the body to the right side of the heart. It is then pumped through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, picking up oxygen. From there, the blood returns to the left side of the heart. Then it is pumped through a large artery called the aorta that distributes blood throughout the body.

When the heart is weakened by heart failure, blood and fluid can back up into the lungs, and fluid builds up in the feet, ankles, and legs. People with heart failure often experience tiredness and shortness of breath.

Heart failure is a serious condition. Scientists estimate that 5 million people in the U.S. have heart failure and that number is growing. It contributes to 300,000 deaths each year. Heart failure is most common in those who are age 65 years and older and is the number one reason older people are hospitalized.

Heart failure tends to be more common in men than in women, but because women usually live longer, the condition affects more women in their 70s and 80s.

The most common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Feeling extremely exhausted  

  • Swelling. Swelling is caused by fluid build-up in the body and can lead to weight gain and frequent urination, as well as coughing.

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