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Taking the Pulse of Heart Failure

Robert Swatski/Flickr

As heart disease remains leading cause of death for men and women across the country, increasingly more people are suffering from heart failure.

Almost 6 million Americans suffer from heart failure, and it kills more than 55,000 people each year.

But only a tiny fraction of patients who could benefit from a heart transplant each year receive one. 

Heart failure also has an economic impact: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the cost of health care services, medications and lost productivity at $34.4 billion every year.

Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin have a robust program to treat patients at all points on the heart failure spectrum. 

Claudius Mahr is part of the team there; he’s an advanced heart failure cardiologist at Froedtert and the Medical College.  He says heart failure is an overlooked public health concern.

"I think it’s, unfortunately, somewhat under-appreciated.  It’s more than patients with lung cancer, prostate cancer, HIV, and AIDS combined, passing away from heart failure every year," Mahr says.

He says it's important to have your vitals, like cholesterol and blood pressure, checked on a regular basis to make sure your heart is healthy. Usually until heart failure reaches a critical point, there are no symptoms.

Mahr says the earlier heart failure is detected, the less damage done to the heart, and the better the body responds to medications and other treatments.

"When patients do develop symptoms...seek medical attention in a timely fashion," he says.

There are many options doctors can use to prevent or reverse some damage. These include medications as well as devices like pacemakers (which help the heart pulse at a regular pace).

Credit Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin
Advanced heart failure cardiologist, Dr. Claudius Mahr

When heart failure reaches further on the spectrum of severity, Mahr says patients may require a heart transplant. However, Mahr says today there are fewer heart donations available, which means many patients have to wait longer to receive their transplant.

In these cases, patients usually receive a ventricular assist device, or VAD. This helps a damaged heart to continue to pump blood. Mahr says the implantable device (which has a battery pack outside the body) serves as a "bridge to transplant," allowing patients to live long enough to receive a new heart.

As these devices are becoming more sophisticated and heart donations decrease, VADs will be used more frequently.