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Medical Intel

Feb 12, 2019

Relaxing is important an important part of life—especially for the heart. In fact, when the heart has difficulty relaxing between beats, people can develop diastolic heart failure, a serious functional condition. Discover which treatment options can help.



Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.

Host: Thanks for joining us today. We’re speaking with Dr. Valeriani Bead, a board-certified cardiologist at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, with extensive experience in nuclear cardiology and echocardiography. Welcome, Dr. Bead.

Dr. Valeriani Bead: Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Host: Today we’re discussing diastolic heart failure which occurs when the left ventricle or the lower left chamber of the heart can’t properly fill with blood. Dr. Bead, is diastolic heart failure a common heart condition?

Dr. Bead: Yes. But first we need to understand what diastolic heart failure is. In simple terms, it’s defined as an abnormality of the diastolic filling, or what we call the relaxation, of the left side of the heart, despite the fact that the heart pumping function is normal. And usually it occurs when the ability of the left side of the heart...when it can’t really accept blood or it’s impaired. And this can lead to a higher pressure inside the heart. Then, that can lead to fluid build-up in the lungs and also to the rest of the body. Now, to answer your question, diastolic heart failure is quite common, and it’s thought to be as prevalent as 20 to 70 percent in some patient populations and is thought to be responsible for about two-thirds of the incidence of congestive heart failure that we see in general.

Host: What are some of the main symptoms of diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: Some of the most common symptoms that we experience with diastolic heart failure are shortness of breath, fatigue, lightheadedness or fainting, and sometimes even an irregular or abnormal heartbeat.

Host: How is this condition diagnosed?

Dr. Bead: Typically, we diagnose diastolic heart failure by good, comprehensive history and physical exam. And then, based on that, we may order some imaging tests called an echocardiogram, which is a sonogram of the heart. This is often combined with the stress tests to show how blood is flowing in the heart during exercise. Finally, we may do additional blood tests or even an invasive procedure called a cardiac catheterization, which is when a thin tube is inserted into the heart in order to see how the heart is functioning and to determine whether or not there are any blockages in the arteries.

Host: Could you tell us a little bit about your patient population for diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: So, the most common individuals we see, those at highest risk for diastolic heart failure, is the older population, so typically individuals over 65 years old and those who have high blood pressure. Sometimes those who have problems with their heart valves, particularly the aortic valve, and typically when that valve is narrowed or doesn’t open well. We also see the diabetics and people who have clogged arteries, and, for unclear reasons, you see it more common in women.

Host: Once you’ve diagnosed an individual with diastolic heart failure, what treatment options are available for them?

Dr. Bead: We always start off with lifestyle modifications, which include smoking cessation, increasing physical activity, and dietary changes. Next, we offer treatment to address the stiffening of the heart and that typically includes controlling the blood pressure, controlling the diabetes, and also, if they have high cholesterol, we also treat that. And some of the medications we use may include a class of medication called beta blockers, which are used to slow the heart rate in order to allow it to function better. We also use medications called calcium channel blockers, which help reduce the stiffness of the heart. Other medications include diuretics that help reduce the fluid accumulation. And, if those are not sufficient, sometimes we offer an invasive procedure called a cardiac catheterization or even surgery to fix any blockages or narrowings in the blood vessels.

Host: What are some of the risks if a patient doesn’t receive treatment for diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: Now that’s a great question because, the main risk we worry about, if a patient doesn’t receive treatment for diastolic heart failure, is death. The other risk we worry about is congestive heart failure, which is when an individual has a sensation that they can’t breathe, and they have evidence of fluid overload. Other things we may see are abnormal heart rhythms called atrial fibrillation. Other things that we may see are passing out, also called syncope.

Host: Is there anything that patients can do to reduce their risk of diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: Yes. The most important thing patients can do to reduce their risk of diastolic heart failure is to keep their blood pressure under control, to control their diabetes or their blood sugars, and to control their cholesterol. And, of course, I mentioned lifestyle changes. So, meaning making sure they don’t smoke, they stay active, and they eat a heart healthy diet.

Host: Could you explain how diabetes is related to diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: Diabetes affects every organ in the body. And in fact, in cardiology, we consider diabetes ‘heart disease’ until proven otherwise. Although the ideology is unclear, diabetes is thought to lead to direct stiffening of the heart, either by having too much glucose in the system or by causing premature stiffening of the blood vessels surrounding the heart and, thereby, stiffening the heart itself.

Host: When you said that, it made me think of a ‘starch,’ like you would put in your clothing to make it stiffer.

Dr. Bead: You know what!? That’s an amazing analogy! Yeah! Cause that’s basically what it does. When you have all this excess glucose in the circulation. It’s basically, because it can literally surround cells and kind of ‘coat’ them so they don’t function so well, and they can become stiff like a starch. Yeah, like starch.

Host: Could you share a treatment success story from your practice?

Dr. Bead: This is always my favorite part! I love talking about my patients because they’re so amazing. There was one middle-aged lady who came to me as a consult from her primary care physician. Initially, it was a semi-urgent consult because the EKG, the electrocardiogram, was abnormal and showed, an abnormal rhythm that was initially concerning for atrial fibrillation when, in fact, she had a lot of skipped beats. When I saw the patient, she was complaining mostly of shortness of breath and the inability to do her Zumba exercises. Oh, she loved to exercise about three days a week. But then she started noticing that her legs were more swollen. She got tired easier. She had a ‘flooded’ sensation in her heart and she really couldn’t do her usual activity of daily living. And, I did a good exam. Her lungs were clear. Her heart actually sounded pretty good, with the exception of some skipped beats. But she did have some swelling in her legs and her blood pressure was quite elevated. And so, based on that, we talked, we adjusted her medication in order to get her blood pressure under better control. I prescribed a diuretic in order to reduce the fluid on her legs. And then we discussed her lifestyle changes such as reducing the sodium from her diet. When we saw her back within a couple of weeks, I had her get an echocardiogram or a sonogram of her heart which showed that her heart was strong but, using certain diagnostic techniques, we could tell that her heart was a bit stiff and it was also thickened from long-standing high blood pressure. So, we were very vigilant in terms of getting her blood pressure under good control. We were able to keep the fluid off. She was...did her part by making the lifestyle changes that she wanted to. And then, within about 6-8 weeks, she was back to doing her Zumba classes with no restrictions. And then, when I see her back every 6 months, she’s actually to the point that she’s helping teach the Zumba classes, which is always awesome.

Host: Why is MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute the best place for patients to seek care for diastolic heart failure?

Dr. Bead: The MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, really is the best place for general cardiology patients, but, in particular, for patients who have specific diagnoses, such as diastolic heart failure, because it offers comprehensive, state-of-the-art care in a compassionate environment that is patient-centered and evidence based.

Host: Well, thanks for joining us today, Dr. Bead.

Dr. Bead: Thank you for having me.

Conclusion: Thanks for listening to Medical Intel with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Find more podcasts from our healthcare team by visiting or subscribing in iTunes or iHeartRadio.