When Aimee Rodriguez-Zepeda started to feel constantly exhausted, the 39-year-old thought it was because she was getting older and juggling a stressful job while raising four kids. Then, during her routine physical, her doctor detected an irregular heartbeat and referred her to a cardiologist, where she was shocked to learn that she had congestive heart failure.
Heart failure may sound like the heart has stopped pumping, but that’s not the case. When someone has this condition, the heart muscle can’t pump enough blood through the body to meet its need for oxygen and nutrients. This could happen when the heart muscle is weakened or when the heart has a defect. The kidneys also don’t receive the proper amount of blood, causing extra fluid to build up in parts of the body. This is called congestion, thus the term congestive heart failure.
In Rodriguez-Zepeda’s case, she had an enlarged heart that was working at only 25 percent capacity. Her doctor told her that her congestive heart failure diagnosis was likely caused by damage sustained by cancer treatments for uterine cancer, which she survived just six years earlier, and a strong history of heart disease in her family.
Many of Rodriguez-Zepeda’s family members died from a heart attack or stroke, but she never really thought that history would play a part in her own risk. “When my grandmother died from a heart attack, I was only 8, so I thought it was because she was old,” she said. “Actually, she was only 51.”
One in five Americans will develop heart failure. That’s 20 percent of the country. While children and young adults may inherit heart failure, congenital heart disease or other heart muscle problems, the average patient has lived for years with risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, eating foods high in sodium, cholesterol and unhealthy fats, and not getting enough physical activity. These factors also increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
Like Rodriguez-Zepeda, many people overlook heart failure symptoms, assuming they are just side effects of stress or getting older. Listen to your body and go to a doctor if you feel:
- Shortness of breath or abnormal breathing, especially with exercise or when lying down
- A persistent cough or wheezing that won’t go away
- Excess body fluid in the stomach, legs or feet
- Persistent tiredness
- Abnormal thirst
- Lack of appetite or nausea
- Impaired thinking
- An increased heart rate
Never lose hope
There is no cure for heart failure, but you can manage the condition and improve your quality of life by working with your doctor.
Two years into managing her condition, Rodriguez-Zepeda is helping other heart patients by volunteering with her local American Heart Association as a heart failure ambassador, sharing her story and supporting patients and their families.
“I personally know the struggle from an emotional, physical and financial standpoint,” she said. “Being knowledgeable about resources, education, support and care is vital on a heart failure patient’s road to recovery.”
World Heart Day is Sept. 29. It’s a good reminder to consciously learn about your heart and commit to living your best life.