Navigating Heart Failure with Cardiologist Larry Allen, MD

We spoke with CU Medicine provider Dr. Larry Allen about the symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention of heart failure.

Heart failure is a serious condition that impairs the heart's ability to pump blood effectively throughout the body. According to Larry Allen, MD, head of cardiology at the University of Colorado Hospital, heart failure affects approximately 6.5 million people in the United States.

Dr. Allen, who specializes in the treatment of advanced heart failure, transplants, and general cardiology, emphasized the importance of individuals understanding the impact of heart failure on their health and the need for proactive management.

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. “Heart failure simply describes that a person’s heart isn’t working as it should,” says Dr. Allen.

The leading cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and ischemic heart disease. It is followed by uncontrolled hypertension as the second most frequent cause. Inherited, genetic, and familial cardiomyopathies rank third. The use of stimulants like methamphetamine and excessive alcohol consumption are other common contributing factors to developing heart failure.

Recognizing the various causes of heart failure is essential for developing an appropriate treatment plan and preventing the condition from worsening over time.

Heart failure symptoms and diagnosis

Individuals with heart failure may experience a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling in the legs and feet and an irregular heartbeat. "When I think of patients with heart failure, they are tired, short of breath and have swelling," said Dr. Allen.

Common heart failure symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity or when lying down
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles and feet
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Persistent cough or wheezing
  • Lack of appetite and nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory issues
  • Chest pain or discomfort

 The diagnostic process for heart failure typically includes a physical examination, laboratory tests and various imaging scans, usually starting with an echocardiogram.

“The majority of patients are diagnosed with heart failure when they present with the symptoms discussed earlier,” says Dr. Allen. “Typically, they will feel new shortness of breath or have new ankle swelling and present to the emergency department or to their primary care doctor.”

Heart failure diagnostic tests:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood test
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Echocardiogram
  • Cardiac MRI
  • Stress tests
  • Cardiac catheterization


Heart failure prevention and risk factors

There are several risk factors and prevention strategies for heart failure. Dr. Allen shares, “One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that’s true for heart failure.”

When it comes to heart failure prevention, Dr. Allen recommends the American Heart Association's life's essential 8 tips:

  1. Eat healthy
  2. Be more active
  3. Quit tobacco
  4. Get healthy sleep
  5. Manage weight
  6. Control cholesterol
  7. Manage blood sugar
  8. Keep blood pressure under control

Heart failure risk factors:

  • Age: The risk of heart failure increases sharply after age 65.
  • Family history and genetics: Certain genetic variants can predispose individuals to heart failure.
  • Coronary artery disease: Blockages in the arteries supplying blood to the heart can weaken the heart muscle.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension): Uncontrolled high blood pressure places extra strain on the heart.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes can damage the heart muscle and blood vessels.
  • Obesity: Excess weight increases the workload on the heart.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Heavy, long-term alcohol use can weaken the heart muscle.
  • History of heart attack: A previous heart attack can cause lasting damage to the heart.
  • Certain health conditions: Conditions like thyroid disorders, sleep apnea and some forms of cancer can contribute to heart failure.
  • Lifestyle factors: A sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and smoking can increase the risk of heart failure.

Heart failure treatment and management

Heart failure patients have access to a variety of evidence-based treatment options, including medications, devices and surgical interventions.

“The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to improve heart function, limit the symptoms of heart failure and in some cases reverse heart failure,” explains Dr. Allen.

Treatment for heart failure depends on what is causing the disease. For instance, if a patient has thyroid dysfunction, taking the right medications to bring the thyroid back into range can help improve heart failure.

Common treatments for heart failure are:

  • Managing chronic disease
  • Medications
  • Implantable devices
  • Surgical procedures

In addition to medical treatments, Dr. Allen emphasized the importance of a comprehensive management plan that addresses lifestyle factors.

Adjusting to life with heart failure can be challenging, but there are resources to help patients and their families manage the condition.

CU Medicine has over 75 primary care and specialty care clinics across the Front Range to help patients manage every aspect of their health.

Learn more and schedule an appointment at CU Medicine Cardiology — Cherry Creek Medical Center and CU Medicine Cardiology — Highlands Ranch Specialty Care Center.

TAGS: cardiology, heart failure, heart health

CATEGORIES: Health Education

This post was originally posted on 4/23/2024