Advances in treatment mean patients can live longer and healthier lives, even with reduced heart functioning.

Amanda MacMillan
March 22, 2018

Queen Latifah’s mother, Rita Owens, has died after living with heart failure for 14 years, the actress and singer said yesterday. Owens, 69, was diagnosed with the cardiovascular condition in 2006, and filmed a PSA with her daughter in 2015 about “rising above” heart failure.

In a statement to People, Latifah said that her mother “had struggled with a heart condition for many years and her battle is now over.” Latifah also spoke with Health in 2016 about her mother’s condition and how it inspired healthy lifestyle changes for her entire family.

The phrase “heart failure” can be extremely frightening—and it certainly is a serious condition, especially because it often occurs along with other life-threatening complications. For example, Owens was diagnosed with sleep apnea at the same time it was discovered she had heart failure. In 2013, she was diagnosed with scleroderma, a lung condition for which she needed supplementary oxygen to help her breathe.

Owens’ battle may now be over, but her last 14 years are evidence that a diagnosis of heart failure is not an immediate death sentence. In fact, says Sara Tabtabai, MD, co-director of the University of Connecticut Heart Failure Center, treatments have improved drastically in recent years—and it’s now common for patients to live for many years with the condition.

“Many patients hear 'heart failure' and immediately think 'heart transplant' or 'death,'” says Dr. Tabtabai, who was not involved in Owens’ treatment. “I try to reassure them that for most patients there are many options before we get anywhere near that: Our focus is to decrease or eliminate symptoms and improve heart function as best we can.”

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Dr. Tabtabai explains that heart failure doesn’t mean the heart stops pumping entirely. Rather, there are two types of heart failure: one in which the heart muscle’s pumping ability is reduced (to less than 40% efficiency, down from 45% to 65% in healthy individuals), and one in which the heart pumps normally but is unable to relax and fill with blood between contractions.

Both types of heart failure cause similar symptoms. “People can feel really fatigued, or experience a decrease in their ability to exercise or do daily activities,” says Dr. Tabtabai. “Shortness of breath is very common, and so is swelling of the legs or ankles.” When swelling occurs—due to blood not circulating properly and fluid accumulating in the lower extremities—the condition may be referred to as congestive heart failure.

There's no cure for heart failure, and if left untreated, it will quickly get worse. But the good news, says Dr. Tabtabai, is that medications and lifestyle changes can help keep the condition under control. That’s especially true for the type of heart failure that involves a reduced pumping ability.

“We have very clear medication guidelines we can put patients on—and often with these medications, we’ll see the pumping function can improve over time,” says Dr. Tabtabai. “It’s important for patients with this type of heart failure to get on the right kind of medication and take it as prescribed, and it’s very likely they see an improvement in how they feel and how much activity they’re able to complete.”

Newer medication for heart failure has also been shown to increase lifespan and reduce hospital stays, says Dr. Tabtabai. “It’s difficult to predict how patients will do, and it’s not really based on the percentage their pumping function is reduced,” she says. “Some people have very low pumping function but they feel well, have minimal symptoms, and go on and live for a long time.”

For the other type of heart failure—in which the heart muscle becomes stiff and is unable to relax—treatment is trickier. “We do not have targeted medications for this type,” says Dr. Tabtabai, “but we can focus on improving symptoms of shortness of breath and cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure.”

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Sticking to a low-salt diet can also help heart failure patients prevent complications and retain a good quality of life, she adds. Some patients are also put on a fluid-restriction diet (in which they only drink 2 liters of liquids a day) or prescribed diuretic medications to reduce swelling.

Working out can be challenging for patients with heart failure, but following an exercise routine can help people feel better and improve their ability to do other types of physical activity, says Dr. Tabtabai.

Research backs that up, too: A 2016 review of 20 clinical trials found that heart-failure patients who exercised regularly were 18% less likely to die and 11% less likely to be hospitalized during the studies than those who didn’t. (Patients should talk with their doctors about gradually increasing their exercise routine at a pace that’s safe and manageable for them.)

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For advanced cases of heart failure, patients are sometimes treated with surgical procedures, including heart transplants or the implantation of a defibrillator or an artificial pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). These options can be stressful for both patients and their caregivers, but they can also provide significant improvements in quality of life.

Dr. Tabtabai points out that regular exercise and following a healthy diet early in life can help prevent heart disease—and related heart failure—later in life. It can also help people who do develop heart failure live longer and healthier. Managing blood pressure (and keeping it below the new guidelines of 130/80) is also important, she adds.

“In my practice, I try to identify people who are at risk of developing heart failure and heart disease and try to highlight that these sorts of lifestyle measure are really very beneficial,” Dr. Tabtabai says. “If they can get in a good routine early in life, that’s our best defense against developing these conditions down the line.”