What are the causes and symptoms of heart failure?

The British Heart Foundation is investing in regenerative medicine that holds promise for heart failure patients.

14 March 2022

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) estimates 920,000 people are living with heart failure in the UK and there are around 200,000 new diagnoses every year.

– What is heart failure?

Heart failure does not mean that a person’s heart has stopped working, but that it does not pump blood around the body as effectively as it should and needs support to help it work better.

Someone can develop heart failure when their heart is permanently damaged, and this damage can be sudden or happen over months or years.

– What are the causes?

Heart failure can be caused by many factors and some of the most common causes are:

– Heart attack – this can cause long-term damage to the heart, which can affect how well it pumps
– High blood pressure which can put extra strain on the heart, and over time lead to heart failure
– Cardiomyopathies – diseases of the heart muscle, which can affect the structure and pumping ability of the heart.

– What are the symptoms of heart failure?

Symptoms can include swelling in the legs, ankles, stomach and around the lower back; breathlessness when active or at rest, and feeling unusually tired or weak.

A person with heart failure may also feel constantly exhausted. Their heart is forced to work harder and harder to deliver blood and oxygen around their body. As the condition progresses, more and more of their quality of life is affected.

– Are there treatments for heart failure?

Currently there is no cure for heart failure, and treatments that are available attempt only to control the effects and improve quality of life.

Those with heart failure are likely to be prescribed drugs that aim to improve their symptoms, keep them as well as possible in and out of hospital, and to prevent their condition from worsening.

Some might benefit from a type of pacemaker, which helps to boost the pumping action of their heart, but if treatments cannot help, a person may be considered for heart transplant surgery, when an irreversibly damaged heart is replaced by a healthy human heart from a donor.

But while heart transplant can change the life of a person with heart failure, it is only an option for a small fraction of cases. Up to 200 heart transplants are carried out in the UK each year but there is a shortage of donor hearts, meaning many people will die in need of a new one.

– What is regenerative medicine?

The BHF has been investing in this field of research that holds promise for heart failure patients since its emergence.

The charity says: “Once considered science fiction, regenerative medicine has the potential to regrow, repair or replace damaged heart tissue and blood vessels. There are many exciting avenues to explore in this field of research. Some are using stem cells to engineer new heart muscle in the lab, others are helping new blood vessels to grow. The possibilities are endless.”

The BHF is the Charity of the Year for the 2022 TCS London Marathon and the regenerative research projects its runners will help fund are co-ordinated by BHF Centres of Regenerative Medicine, and cover three key areas of regenerative medicine - heart remodelling, vascular remodelling and heart self-repair.   

These projects will be taking place at multiple universities across the UK, including Universities of Edinburgh, Nottingham and Oxford.

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