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Congestive Heart Failure


An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CHF.

Alternative Names

Cardiomyopathy; Heart Failure


Heart failure has many causes and can evolve in different ways:

  • It can be a direct, last-stage result of heart damage from one or more of several heart or circulation diseases.
  • It can occur over time as the heart tries to compensate for abnormalities caused by these conditions, a condition called remodeling.

In all cases, the weaker pumping action of the heart means that less blood is sent to the kidneys. The kidneys respond by retaining water and salt. This in turn increases edema (fluid buildup) in the body, which causes widespread damage.

High Blood Pressure

Uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, can cause a heart attack, but it is also a major cause of heart failure even in the absence of an attack. In fact, about 75% of cases of heart failure start with hypertension. It generally develops in the following way:

  • To compensate for increased blood pressure, the heart muscles thicken.
  • Over time the force of the heart muscle contractions weakens and the muscles have difficulty relaxing, thereby preventing the normal filling of the heart with blood.

[For more information, see the Well-Connected report #14, High Blood Pressure.]

Hypertension is a disorder characterized by consistently high blood pressure. Generally, high blood pressure consists of systolic blood pressure (the "top" number, which represents the pressure generated when the heart beats) higher than 140, or diastolic blood pressure (the "bottom" number, which represents the pressure in the vessels when the heart is at rest) over 90.

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease is the end result of a complex process called atherosclerosis (commonly called "hardening of the arteries"). It is the most common cause of heart attack and involves the build-up of unhealthy cholesterol on the arteries, with inflammation and injury in the cells of the blood vessels. The arteries narrow and become brittle and subject to damage. Heart failure in such cases most often results from a localized pumping defect in the left side of the heart. [For detailed information, see other Well-Connected reports, including #3, Coronary Artery Disease and Angina and #23, Cholesterol, Lipoproteins, and Other Lipids.]

Click the icon to see an image of atherosclerosis.

Damage after a Heart Attack

People now often survive heart attacks, but eventually many develop heart failure from the physical damage done to the heart muscles by the attack. So ironically, heart attack recovery is probably one of the major factors in the dramatic increase in heart failure cases over the past decade. On an encouraging note, however, new therapies that are reducing the severity of heart attacks may help stabilize the heart failure rates. [For more information, see the Well-Connected report #12, Heart Attack.]

Valvular Heart Disease

The valves of the heart control the flow of blood leaving and entering the heart. Abnormalities can lead to failure:

  • They can narrow, causing a backup of blood.
  • They can close improperly, causing blood to leak back into the heart.
Click the icon to see an image of the heart valves.

In the past, rheumatic fever, which scars the heart valves and prevents them from closing, was a major cause of death from heart failure. Fortunately, antibiotics have relegated this disease to a minor cause of heart failure. Birth defects may also cause abnormal valvular development. Although more children born with heart defects are now living to adulthood, they still face a higher than average risk for heart failure as they age.


Cardiomyopathies are diseases that damage the heart muscles and lead to heart failure. Injury to the heart muscles may cause them to thin out (dilate) or become too thick (become hypertrophic). In either case, the pumping action is disrupted.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Dilated cardiomyopathy involves an enlarged heart ventricle. The muscles thin out, reducing the pumping action usually on the left side. Although this condition is associated with genetic factors, the direct cause often is not known (in which case it is called idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy). Research strongly indicates that viruses, such as Coxsackie virus, or other infections may be at the base of this condition. Experts posit that an autoimmune response occurs in which infection-fighting antibodies attack a person's own proteins in the heart, mistaking them for foreign agents.

Click the icon to see an image of dilated cardiomyopathy.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. In hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the heart muscles become thick and contract with difficulty. Some research indicates that this occurs because of a genetic defect that causes a loss of power in heart muscle cells and, subsequently, diminished pumping strength. To compensate for this power loss, the heart muscle cells grow. This condition, rare in the general population, is often the cause of sudden death in young athletes.

Click the icon to see an image of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Corrective Mechanisms, Remodeling, and the Failing Heart

High blood pressure, heart attacks, or other initial processes that impair the pumping actions of the heart trigger a number of hormonal and neurochemical mechanisms to correct imbalances in pressure and blood flow. Unfortunately, while these corrective responses help in the short term, they increase the work of the heart. The mechanisms, then, are now viewed as major contributors to the end stages of heart failure. Some are described briefly in the following sections.

Remodeling. The heart responds to high blood pressure and overload by enlarging in order to increase blood input. This leads to structural damage called remodeling:

  • In order to accommodate the increased blood input, the heart muscle cells elongate. The muscular walls of the heart that they form become thinner and inefficient.
  • The muscle cells undergo other changes that result in calcium loss. Calcium is a mineral that is crucial for healthy heart contractions.
  • The thinner heart muscles and the impaired heart contractions further weaken the heart's pump.
  • Mitral valve regurgitation is a possible outcome of remodeling. The mitral valve regulates blood flow between the two chambers on the left side of the heart. In response to remodeling, the structural changes in the heart may distort the mitral valve so that the blood leaks backward into the left atrium of the heart instead of flowing out into the body's circulation.
  • These changes are generally irreversible, although heart pacemakers and certain drugs, including beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors, may reverse some of the remodeling in some patients.

Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System. The sympathetic nervous system consists of the nerve cells that automatically govern and regulate the beating heart.

  • This nervous system responds to the failing heart pump by signaling the release of stress hormones, in particular a powerful one called norepinephrine.
  • These hormones flood the heart, causing it to beat even faster.
  • These rapid heart beats, although intended to accommodate the weakened pumping actions, only accelerate the damage.

The Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System (RAAS). The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) is a group of hormones that are responsible for the opening and narrowing of blood vessels and retention of fluids. They also affect cell development in the heart.

  • The RAAS hormones are called into action by the failing heart.
  • They respond to the lower blood volume of the weakened heart by constricting the blood vessels and retaining fluids and sodium.
  • The heart then works harder to pump blood through these narrowed vessels. Blood pressure, then, is forced to increase, which creates a vicious cycle.

Immune System Response. The immune system may also compound the damage:

In response to injury in the heart muscle cells or in other parts of the body that occurs as the heart fails, the immune system releases factors intended to protect these areas.

In excess, however, they can cause inflammation and damage.

  • The most important of these factors are called cytokines. Active cytokines include tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and possibly interleukins 1 and 6.
  • High levels of these cytokines have been observed in patients with the most severe classes of heart failure.
  • They may play an important role in the process leading to remodeling. High levels of these cytokines might actually trigger muscle cell growth and enlargement of the heart.

Other Players. Other molecules or compounds have been identified that might play a positive or negative role in the process of the failing heart:

  • Natriuretic peptides are a family of compounds released to counterbalance the effects of RAAS. Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) is a specific member of this family that opens blood vessels and counteracts the sodium-retaining properties of aldosterone (one of the RAAS hormones). It is of particular interest to researchers looking for new treatments.
  • Endothelin is a powerful protein involved in blood vessel constriction, cell proliferation and build-up, and other negative effects on the heart.
  • Nitric oxide is important for blood vessel dilation and elasticity.

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