Overcoming the Hurdles of Heart Failure Treatment

Managing this condition isn’t always easy, but there are simple strategies you can use to tackle the obstacles.

It’s easy to understand why you might run hot and cold with your treatment plan for heart failure. After all, the regimen requires a lot of daily self-care. It can involve taking multiple medications at different times of the day, following a specific diet and being physically active.

It’s no wonder that, when it comes to taking meds for chronic conditions, people tend to slip after six months, according to a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Here’s why you shouldn’t: Making lifestyle changes and taking medication as prescribed by your doctor can make a big difference in your quality of life.

A review of studies published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that heart failure patients who were vigilant about taking their meds significantly lowered their chances of repeat hospital visits as well as their overall mortality risk.

That’s not to suggest that sticking with your program is going to be easy. Some patients slip in taking their heart failure medications as a result of the side effects—such as fatigue, headache or light headedness—they may experience. In other cases, the fear of side effects to come may lead some folks to avoid taking their medications. It’s always important to discuss any potential side effects with your healthcare provider before you begin your prescription so you know which ones to anticipate and which ones warrant a call to the doctor. And remember to never change or stop taking your prescriptions without consulting your provider first.

Here are four other common obstacles to following a treatment plan for heart failure—and how you can overcome them.

I can’t afford my meds

People with heart failure often take three different types of medications—some of them multiple times a day—and each one is important in terms of managing the condition. Whether you have insurance or not, prescription medications can be expensive, but there are a number of ways to reduce the costs.

If you have insurance, ask your doctor if your prescribed drug is in your insurance plan’s formulary (its list of covered drugs). If it’s not, you may be able to switch to an alternative drug that is covered by insurance. Generic drugs may also be an option. They’re cheaper substitutes for brand-name drugs that work just as well.

If you don’t have insurance, covering the cost can be especially challenging, but you have several options. They include Medicare Part D (if you’re eligible for Medicare) and Medicare Extra Help (if you’re on Medicare but have limited income and resources). Drug manufacturers sometimes also offer patient-assistance programs, which subsidize drug costs for patients who qualify based on income and other factors. Ask your pharmacist if you may be eligible.

I can’t stomach so-called heart-healthy foods

Following an eating plan that’s built on nutrient-rich foods is an important part of managing heart failure. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating a variety of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, lean protein (such as fish and skinless poultry), whole grains, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy and vegetable oils (including corn, canola, olive and safflower oils).

Arguably the most important part? Limiting your sodium intake. The AHA has set an ideal limit of 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day due to its blood pressure-reducing affects. Talk to your doctor about what amount of daily sodium would work best for you and whether following a heart-healthy eating pattern such as the Dash diet may make sense.

Why is reducing sodium so crucial? One of the most common symptoms of heart failure is swelling—usually in the ankles, lower legs and feet. Sodium causes your body to hold on to extra fluids, which makes it harder for your weakened heart to do its job.

But reducing salt doesn’t mean you have to forget about flavor in the foods you eat. Try experimenting with herbs and spices in your cooking and ask your healthcare provider to put you in touch with a dietitian who can show you other ways to enjoy foods that aren’t yet on your “like” list.

I can’t remember to take my meds

It may seem like a missed dose here or a forgotten dose there won’t matter, especially if you’re feeling okay overall. But it’s important to take all of your medications as prescribed by your doctor, even if you think you’re making progress on treating your condition.

Not only does sticking carefully with your prescriptions—what’s known as “medication adherence”—improve symptoms and reduce the number of hospitalizations associated with chronic conditions, it can also help you live longer.

To help remember when to take your meds, use a pill box, set an alarm or connect your medication routine to something you already do every day, like brushing your teeth. And to make sure you’re never without the medications you need, ask your pharmacy to remind you when it’s time to refill a prescription. Better yet, ask to have your refills for various meds synchronized, so that you can make one trip to the pharmacy each month.

I don’t have time to exercise

The AHA recommends getting 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (a brisk walk, for instance) at least five days each week. Regular physical activity can not only help you maintain a healthy weight, but research shows it helps improve quality of life. Check with your doctor about how exercise fits into your overall treatment plan for heart failure.

Finding chunks of time for exercise can be challenging. But you don’t have to log a major sweat session for it to count. Anything that gets you moving—vacuuming, gardening, climbing stairs, as well as walking, swimming or riding a bicycle—counts as physical activity.

Keep in mind that although 150 minutes per week is the goal, no one is expecting you to reach it right away. Finding pockets of time throughout your day to squeeze in a little exercise can often do the trick: Take a 10-minute walk after lunch or go for a light ride on the stationary bike while you watch your favorite TV show in the evening.

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