Heart Failure Treatment and Management for Seniors

Congestive heart failure is a serious health condition, in particular for elderly people. There are a number of risk factors, many of which can be controlled through lifestyle changes and under guidance from your doctor. Knowing what heart failure is, what causes it, and how to prevent it are the first steps to proper management.

elderly man getting a heart wellness checkup with doctor

Intermountain Health is dedicated to seniors’ health through its network of myGeneration clinics. Learn more about us today.

What is heart failure?

Heart failure does not mean the heart no longer works. But it does mean the heart is no longer working as well as it should. The body relies on the heart to distribute oxygen-rich blood through the body. In the case of heart failure, the heart becomes stiff, relaxation becomes impaired, and the heart muscle is weakened.

heart failure treatment and management for seniors infographic

What are the types of heart failure?

Doctors group types of heart failure by how the heart changes and its effect on the body.

  • Congestive heart failure is when there is a backup of fluid into the lungs and the tissues of the body. Often doctors use the terms “heart failure” and “congestive heart failure” interchangeably.
  • Left side heart failure is when the heart can’t properly pump out blood. Fluid may back up into the lungs.
  • Right side heart failure is when the heart can’t pump blood to the lungs where it gets oxygen. Poorly-oxygenated blood may circulate in the body, causing fluid build-up and swelling in the abdomen, legs, and feet.
  • Systolic heart failure is when the left ventricle of the heart doesn’t contract normally, and the heart muscle is weakened.
  • Diastolic heart failure is when the left ventricle can’t relax so the heart doesn’t fill with blood as it should between beats making the heart’s relaxation impaired.
  • Cor pulmonale is right side heart failure caused by high blood in the lung circulation.

Often left side heart failure leads to right side heart failure. When both sides are affected at the same time, it’s called biventricular heart failure.

What are the symptoms to look for?

There are many signs of heart failure. Here are the most common symptoms:

  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Feeling weak
  • Swelling in the feet, legs, ankles, or abdomen
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing starting with exertion
  • Coughing
  • Nausea or lack of appetite
  • Cannot breathe well when laying down flat

A person with heart failure may experience all, only one, or a few of these symptoms.

When should you see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if you think you have any symptoms of heart failure. You should also feel comfortable speaking with a doctor about any concerns you have about your heart health.

Some signs of heart failure need emergency attention. Contact a doctor or call 911 immediately if you experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Severe weakness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat combined with fainting, chest pain, or shortness of breath
  • Sudden shortness of breath

Call 9-1-1 in case of emergency.

To talk to a doctor about heart failure, connect with the professionals at Intermountain Health.

What are the causes of heart failure?

Heart failure can happen suddenly if the heart muscle becomes too stiff and can’t pump properly. The heart can also become damaged or weak over a long period of time.

Here are some causes of heart failure:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Coronary artery disease and previous heart attack
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Heart muscle disease
  • Lung disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Other conditions like severe anemia, hyperthyroidism, abnormal heart rhythm.

All of these conditions make the heart work harder, leading to the possibility of weakness or damage of the heart over time.

Who is at risk for heart failure?

Heart failure can happen to anyone. A person is particularly at risk if they have or experience any of the causes of heart failure. Lifestyle factors can also increase the risk.

Medical condition risks:

  • Coronary artery disease and heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Other conditions that cause heart damage or weakening

Lifestyle risks:

  • Smoking
  • Overweight which contributes to hypertension and diabetes
  • Diet high in sodium, saturated fat, or cholesterol
  • Lack of activity or exercise
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol

The risk is greater if someone has both a medical condition risk and engages in lifestyle behaviors that also increase the heart failure risk.

For the elderly: What you need to know

Heart failure in the elderly is of particular concern for doctors. That’s because many seniors may have other health conditions as well as heart failure. Risk factors for heart failure also become more common as people get older. It’s important to keep watch of possible symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF) in elderly patients in order to recommend appropriate interventions.

How can the elderly prevent heart failure and manage symptoms?

Heart failure is more common in people over the age of 65. According to the National Institutes of Health, hospitalization of people on Medicare is often because of heart failure.

While overall more men than women have heart failure, more women than men in their 70s and 80s have the condition. Doctors think this may be because, on average, women have a longer lifespan than men. Also, for women, heart disease is the leading cause of death in their 70s and 80s post menopause.

Managing heart failure in the elderly therefore means knowing the risk factors, possible complications, and courses of prevention.

Risk factors

The risk factors for heart failure in the elderly include:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Changes to the heart as it ages
  • Lack of activity

High blood pressure and coronary artery disease are of particular concern because by the time people reach their senior years, they may have had these conditions for a long time. As a result, the conditions have had perhaps several years to weaken the heart muscle.


Heart Failure in elderly patients can have the same complications as may affect other people. They include:

  • Kidney damage or failure
  • Liver damage
  • Heart valve problems
  • Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias)

Maintaining a good relationship with your doctor, especially if they are well-informed about seniors’ health, can help ensure to limit your risk for heart failure complications.


To prevent congestive heart failure, elderly people should take steps to limit their exposure to risk factors. That may include things like adopting healthy lifestyle habits and working with a doctor on preventive medical treatments.

What treatments can I have for heart failure?

There are several options to treat heart failure, some of which you can do at home. Others may require hands-on help and guidance from your doctor.

  • Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, losing weight, reducing fluid intake, drinking less alcohol, drinking less caffeine, increasing physical activity, and eating a healthy diet.
  • Medications like ACE inhibitors, ARNIs, beta-blockers, diuretics, blood thinners, statins, and others.
  • Surgical devices like a defibrillator, biventricular pacing, or left ventricular assist device.
  • Surgery like angioplasty, valve replacement, coronary artery bypass, or heart transplant.

The interventions that are right for you depend on the causes and severity of your heart failure and how much you want to be involved in your healthcare.

What questions should you ask your provider?

You should ask whatever questions are on your mind about heart failure. Some common queries include:

  • Am I at risk for heart failure?
  • What lifestyle changes do you recommend to limit risk?
  • Are there any tests you can perform to assess my heart health?
  • How can I talk to my family about congestive heart failure?
  • What medications do you recommend, and what side effects do they have?

You can jot your questions down before your doctor’s appointment to remind you of what concerns you have.

Why choose Intermountain Health?

Managing heart failure in the elderly is just one of the people-focused goals of Intermountain Health. We have created a network of myGeneration clinics dedicated specifically to senior health. Our team of health professionals gives you the time you need to discuss your health, in-person or virtually. Learn more about Intermountain Health and find a doctor near you today.


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or diagnosis from a physician or qualified healthcare professional.

Part of being well is being heard.