The heart is a vital organ that pumps blood around the body. If the heart is unable to do this, it can cause serious health problems. People may confuse heart attacks and heart failure. A heart attack occurs when there is a sudden loss of blood supply to the heart, while heart failure is when the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States. The term refers to several different types of heart conditions, including heart attacks and heart failure.

This article will explore the differences between heart attacks and heart failure. It will look at the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatments of both conditions.

An electrocardiogram reading of a person's heart rate.Share on Pinterest
Glowimages/Getty Images

The heart is a muscular pump that circulates blood to all the tissues throughout the body. This is a vital function, as without a continuous supply of fresh blood, cells are unable to work correctly and will eventually die.

It is essential to maintain heart health and help prevent any heart disease that may stop the heart from functioning correctly.

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is when there is a sudden reduction in the flow of blood to a section of the heart. Typically, this is the result of a blockage preventing the normal flow of blood, but it can also occur from supply-demand mismatch. If the flow of blood does not restore to normal, it can cause that section of heart muscle to begin dying.

Heart failure, or congestive heart failure, is a condition when the heart is unable to pump sufficient blood around the body. This may be due to the heart not filling with enough blood or the heart being too weak to pump correctly. Despite the name, it does not refer to the heart stopping.

Both conditions are fairly prominent, with research suggesting that roughly 805,000 Americans have a heart attack every year, while roughly 6.2 million U.S. adults have heart failure.

A wide variety of factors can result in heart attacks. A common cause of heart attack is coronary artery disease.

This is when the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart, become narrower or blocked due to a buildup of plaque. This makes it harder for blood to pass through them.

A coronary artery spasm can also result in a heart attack. This is when there is a severe tightening or spasm of a coronary artery, which has muscles in its walls, and this can cut off blood flow through the artery.

There are also many factors that can contribute to heart failure. Typically, it is the result of other medical conditions that overwork the heart, or an injury or infection that causes damage to the heart.

Heart failure can affect both the left and right sides of the heart. The left side pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout the body, while the right side collects oxygen-low blood and pumps it to the lungs to acquire oxygen.

It is more common for heart failure to affect the left side and how well the heart can pump blood to the body. There are two types of left sided heart failure: reduced ejection fraction and preserved ejection fraction.

Reduced ejection fraction, also known as systolic heart failure, is when the heart cannot contract effectively. This may be due to:

  • coronary artery disease
  • genetic cardiomyopathy
  • faulty heart valves
  • irregular heartbeat
  • acquired heart disease
  • alcohol
  • cocaine, methamphetamine, or other toxins

Preserved ejection fraction, also known as diastolic heart failure, is when the heart is too stiff to fully contract. This means it cannot fill up with enough blood, so it pumps less out to the body. This may be due to:

With heart failure of the right side, the heart is unable to pump enough blood to the lungs to pick up sufficient oxygen. It usually occurs due to heart failure of the left side. This is due to a buildup of blood, raising pressure in the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs.

Heart attacks do not always present with noticeable symptoms. Doctors may refer to these as silent heart attacks. The symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person. People who have had a past heart attack may notice different symptoms. Typically, the most common symptoms are:

Other possible symptoms may include:

The symptoms of heart failure depend on the type and severity of the condition. Shortness of breath is a common symptom of both left and right sided heart failure. Symptoms will usually get worse as the heart grows weaker.

Symptoms of left sided heart failure can include:

  • general weakness
  • trouble breathing
  • sleepiness
  • trouble concentrating
  • coughing
  • fatigue
  • bluish color of finger and lips
  • difficulty sleeping flat

Symptoms of right sided heart failure may include:

Due to the urgency of a potential heart attack, a doctor will likely diagnose a heart attack based on the person’s signs, symptoms, and medical history. They can also perform diagnostic testing.

This may involve an electrocardiogram (EKG), blood tests, stress test, or coronary angiography.

Similarly, a doctor can diagnose heart failure using a person’s medical history, a physical exam, and diagnostic testing.

Usually, this testing will involve blood tests and an echocardiogram. If these tests are inconclusive, a doctor may then order further tests such as a CT scan, MRI scan, EKG, or stress tests.

Early treatment for a heart attack can help prevent or reduce severe damage to the heart muscle. Before a diagnosis confirms a heart attack, a doctor may treat a person with:

After diagnosis, a doctor will then try to restore blood flow by removing or lessening the blockage. This may involve medications, coronary angioplasty, and intervention.

Coronary angioplasty is a medical procedure that uses a balloon to open up the artery and restore blood flow. A doctor may also insert a small mesh tube called a stent to keep the artery open.

A doctor may also prescribe medicine to reduce clotting, lower blood pressure, and reduce strain on the heart.

Heart failure has no cure, but treatments aim to help a person live longer with fewer symptoms. Treatment will depend on the type of heart failure a person has, but typically involves lifestyle changes, medicines, and in some cases, surgery.

Both heart attack and heart failure are serious conditions. If left untreated, they can be fatal.

Anyone who experiences symptoms of a heart attack or heart failure should immediately seek the advice of a healthcare professional. Receiving prompt treatment can make a big difference to a person’s chance of recovery.

Heart attacks and heart failure are both types of heart disease, but are different conditions.

Heart attacks are when there is a loss of blood supply to the heart, while heart failure is when the heart is unable to pump blood around the body efficiently.

Although heart attacks and heart failure both affect the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body, the conditions are different.

While both conditions have different causes, people can try to reduce their chances of heart disease by trying to follow a healthy lifestyle with a varied diet, regular exercise, and minimum stress.