Heart failure means the heart cannot pump enough blood. It can be a disability, but whether it qualifies depends on which definition of disability a person uses and the type of disability benefits they are seeking.

Disability” is a medical, legal, and sociological term. In medicine, it may refer to how an illness affects a person. Under this definition, a person with heart failure has a disability if it affects daily functioning or important areas of functioning.

Legally, the definition of disability varies from region to region and may change depending on the accommodations a person seeks. For example, people with heart failure are generally eligible for Social Security disability benefits, and it is illegal to discriminate against them in most contexts in the United States.

But a person might not be eligible for disability payments from their employee benefits program unless they meet additional criteria. Becoming eligible for disability benefits usually begins with getting the right medical diagnosis.

This article will explain whether heart failure is a disability, as well as the symptoms, causes, and treatment.

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Many different disability guides specifically list heart failure as a disability. For example, the Social Security Administration lists chronic heart failure as a disability. A person must undergo testing, usually including an exercise stress test, to prove their disability. They must also be unable to complete one or more activities of daily living.

Many different definitions of disability exist:

  • Medical: A person may consider themselves disabled if they have a serious medical diagnosis that affects daily functioning.
  • Social: Society may consider a person disabled if their medical condition affects their ability to do culturally typical tasks.
  • Legal: A person must meet certain legal criteria to be classified as disabled and be eligible for certain benefits, such as Social Security payments or discrimination protections.

What is heart failure?

Heart failure means the heart cannot pump enough oxygen and blood throughout the body. It is a chronic and potentially life threatening condition. Many different conditions cause heart failure, which can affect any of the chambers of the heart.

The two main types of heart failure include:

  • Systolic heart failure: This means the heart is too weak to contract normally, decreasing its ability to pump blood throughout the body.
  • Diastolic heart failure: This means the heart muscle is too stiff to fill with blood adequately. This delays the heart’s ability to pump enough blood throughout the body. Doctors also call this heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, because the heart can still pump a standard amount of blood, but adequate blood is not available.

Learn more about congestive heart failure.

In the early stages, congestive heart failure may not cause obvious symptoms. Or the symptoms may only be evident when a person exercises.

Some symptoms a person may have include:

  • swelling in the abdomen
  • water retention and swelling in the neck, feet, or hands
  • extreme fatigue, even when well-rested
  • shortness of breath, sometimes even at rest
  • a cough
  • trouble sleeping lying flat
  • bluish tint to lips or fingers
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • frequent urination
  • unintentional weight gain or loss

Symptoms vary depending on the side of the heart with failure, so the absence of certain symptoms does not mean a person does not have heart failure.

A person should contact a doctor if:

  • They have any symptoms of heart failure.
  • They are at risk of heart failure because they have a family history of heart failure, risk factors such as smoking and aging, or high blood pressure.
  • They already have a heart failure diagnosis but are seeking disability accommodations.
  • Their heart failure symptoms are getting worse.

Heart failure usually happens because a person has an underlying disorder that damages the heart. Some common causes include:

Over time, these conditions damage the heart or force it to work harder.

Many different underlying factors can lead to these diseases, but lifestyle issues often play a role. Some common lifestyle risk factors include:

  • overweight or obesity
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • an unhealthy diet

A wide range of treatments may slow the progression of heart failure and reduce symptoms. These include:

  • Medication: This usually includes a beta-blocker and a renin-system inhibitor, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor, or angiotensin II receptor blocker. A person may also take diuretics to help with swelling. A number of other medications, such as spironolactone, digoxin, and vericiguat, may help depending on the type of heart failure a person has and their symptoms.
  • Defibrillator: An implantable cardioverter-defibrillator is a device that can keep the heart beating. In people with a very low ejection fraction or other risk factors, this may help reduce the risk of sudden death.
  • Heart transplant: A heart transplant can cure heart failure and may be appropriate if a person is otherwise healthy or young.
  • Lifestyle changes: Exercising more, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and making heart-healthy dietary changes, such as reducing sodium intake, may help protect and strengthen the heart.

The long-term outlook for those with heart failure is poor, although death rates have decreased over time. Heart failure is a chronic and often progressive medical condition. It can be fatal within 5–10 years.

Among people hospitalized for heart failure, the death rate is 42% at 5 years, according to a StatPearls review.

But the individual outlook depends on factors such as:

  • a person’s overall health
  • the presence of other risk factors, such as smoking
  • access to treatment
  • the severity of the heart failure
  • a person’s willingness to make lifestyle changes

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce the risk of heart failure, even in people with underlying medical conditions or a family history of heart disease. A person may wish to try:

  • talking with a doctor about managing and treating medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes
  • reducing sodium intake by eating more fresh foods and fewer processed ones
  • avoiding trans fats and reducing saturated fat intake
  • quitting smoking
  • quitting drinking or drinking less
  • becoming more physically active, starting slowly if necessary
  • monitoring blood pressure at home and talking with a doctor about any changes in blood pressure or symptoms

Learn more about preventing heart failure.

Heart failure is a serious medical condition that can be disabling. With treatment, many people improve or are able to perform daily functions, but the long-term outlook may still be poor.

A person who needs disability accommodations or payments for heart failure should consult with a lawyer who specializes in disability law. They will also need help from a cardiologist to diagnose and treat their condition.