What's The Difference Between Heart Failure and a Heart Attack?

Have you always wondered if there’s a difference between heart failure and a heart attack? We explain them both here.

Heart failure, heart attack–who cares what it means? They both sound scary, right? When it comes to heart health, however, understanding the terms goes a long way in helping you understand your disease.

Let’s start with heart failure.

Heart failure means your heart isn’t pumping properly.

Sometimes conditions like high blood pressure, a virus, a valve problem, or even a heart attack damage the heart muscle. When the muscle is weakened, it can’t pump properly, so your body isn’t getting the blood it needs.

Does it mean my heart could stop at any moment?

Not necessarily. The word failure is slightly misleading. Think of heart failure as an inefficient heart or a weakened heart. Some forms of heart failure are more severe than others, but often you can live a fairly normal life with heart failure. Your doctor is your best source to help you know what symptoms to watch for, what activities to avoid, and the best treatment to use.

Are there different types of heart failure?

Yes. Your heart has two sides–left and right, and heart failure on either side can have slightly different effects. The left side pumps blood out to your body. When the left side of the heart is weakened, your body isn’t getting the blood it needs to function properly. The right side of the heart is responsible for sending blood to the lungs for oxygen. When the right side of your heart isn’t pumping properly, your blood isn’t getting the oxygen it needs.

Then there’s congestive heart failure. All kinds of heart failure are serious, but congestive heart failure is the most serious. When blood isn’t pumping properly, it starts to pool in the body causing swelling. If this condition goes untreated, other organs can sustain damage.

For more on different types of heart failure, read this American Heart Association article.

So what’s a heart attack then?

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart is blocked. When this happens, the heart is starved of oxygen and the muscle begins to die. The amount of damage depends on the size of the artery that’s blocked. A larger artery means a larger part of the heart isn’t getting the oxygen it needs, so more of the heart muscle is damaged.

A heart attack often leads to heart failure. When part of the heart muscle dies, the heart as a whole is weaker and doesn’t work as efficiently as it used to.

If it goes untreated, a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest.

What causes a heart attack?

A number of factors can cause a heart attack. Plaque or calcium build up, a blood clot, or inflammation in the arteries can hinder the heart from getting the blood it needs and result in a heart attack.

What can I do to prevent heart failure or a heart attack?

You know how your doctor is always telling you to eat better, exercise more, and stop smoking? Well, she was right. The best way to protect your heart is to live a healthy lifestyle now.

Concerned you’re already suffering from heart failure or are at risk for a heart attack ? Head to your doctor for an examination. She and your care team will help you determine the best way to care for your heart.