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Heart Disease - Rehabilitation for Patients with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

Most patients with congestive heart failure (CHF) will need to learn to live with the condition. Approximately two thirds of people with CHF die within five years of their diagnosis. However, some patients live long lives with CHF by making lifestyle changes and taking medication.

Patient guidelines for living with CHF:

  • Maintain a healthy diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium
  • Maintain an ideal weight
  • Do not smoke
  • Strictly limit or refrain from the use of alcohol
  • Avoid stress
  • Avoid the flu and pneumonia (with an annual flu shots, avoiding infected persons)
  • Seek regular physician monitoring of CHF
  • Always take prescribed medications and report side effects to a physician
  • Report any new symptoms immediately, such as severe dyspnea (shortness of breath), swelling in the ankles or legs, increased fatigue, etc.

The American Heart Association recommends that patients with CHF limit their intake of sodium to 2,400 milligrams (mg) or less per day or to the amount their physicians recommend. This is approximately equal to one teaspoon of sodium per day. Cholesterol intake should also be limited to approximately 300 mg, with a total fat intake of approximately 65 mg and saturated fat intake of 20 grams.

Because the physical effects of stress can be strenuous on a weakened heart, patients with CHF should be careful to avoid stressful situations. Of course, completing avoid stress is impossible and having a diagnosis of CHF tends to increase anxiety in most people. Physicians should advise patients to minimize stress by exercising regularly, taking time to relax every day, getting plenty of rest, planning activities in advance, trying to maintain a positive disposition, joining a support group or talking regularly with friends or family members, or seeking professional counseling if necessary.

In many cases, moderate exercise such as walking, light jogging, or bicycling can benefit patients with CHF by increasing energy levels and working to lower cholesterol or blood pressure levels and obesity. Stress tests on patients should be performed to help devise an appropriate exercise regimen for each patient with CHF. Sometimes, supervised physical activity at cardiac centers or hospitals may be a favorable option.

Patients with CHF should be monitored by physicians on a regular basis. Patients with CHF and/or those taking care of them should also report any new symptoms immediately. These symptoms include severe dyspnea, increased swelling in the ankles, legs or abdomen, increased fatigue, a new cough, and weight gain.

Currently, only 20% of patients with CHF live longer than eight to 12 years with the condition, and the risk of sudden death from CHF is significant. In the United States, deaths from CHF tend to be higher in African Americans than Caucasians. However researchers are engaged in research to better understand the causes of CHF and improve prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survival. Current research includes inserting grafted cells into the heart to replace damaged ones, developing multi-action drugs to treat CHF, improving heart transplants (including xenotransplantation, the use of animal hearts), and improving left ventricular assist devices (LVAD).

Updated: February 2011