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Heart Failure Claimed Sidney Poitier and Nichelle Nichols. Here are the Key Symptoms

Heart failure can be chronic or acute and lead to death if left untreated.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart failure is a common condition that, left untreated, could lead to death. Oscar winner Sidney Poitier died of heart failure at the age of 94 a little more than a year ago. Beloved Star Trek actor Nichelle Nichols died of the same ailment at age 89 a few months later. Both also had underlying health conditions, including dementia. Heart failure, sometimes called congestive heart failure, is when the heart is too weak to pump blood properly. It may be a chronic condition or occur suddenly.  If the heart cannot do its job sufficiently, it could cause fluid to back up in the blood vessels from the lungs to the heart and other tissues. Not enough blood may get to organs, causing multiple symptoms. Lifestyle can contribute to heart failure, including smoking, lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, or drug or alcohol use. Heart failure risk increases for older people and for others based on race, sex and family history. Chronic health issues can also lead to it, including high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, viral infections such as HIV and COVID-19, and diabetes and sleep apnea. Here are warning signs and symptoms that suggest heart failure. If you have one or more of these symptoms and are concerned you may have heart failure, consult your doctor or call 911.


Shortness of Breath

Asian young woman feeling discomfort as suffering from heartburn holding chest with closed eyes and sitting with folded legs on couch at home.

This can come during activity but also while lying down or even during sleep. Sitting up may improve breathing in this situation. It comes from fluid buildup in the lungs as the heart doesn't move enough blood. At its worst, the condition could lead to breathlessness, anxiety or coughing up pink or bloody mucus foam.


Swelling in the Feet and Legs


Swelling in the lower body and legs, ankles and feet is another symptom of fluid buildup as a result of heart failure. Fluid buildup can also occur in organs of the body. In part, the swelling results from the inability of the kidneys to excrete sodium and water. That could manifest as swelling of the abdomen.


Chest Pain or Rapid Heartbeat

closeup man's chest heart attack

A rapid heartbeat is the body's attempt to compensate for the heart's inability to move sufficient blood. It may also lead to chest pain, irregular heart rhythm or even fainting. The rapid pulse may feel like fluttering or pounding.



Woman awakened lying in bed with her eyes open.

A person may feel weak and tired as the body redirects blood away from the muscles and other organs to the heart and brain when the heart can't keep up. This can lead to chronic fatigue, making it hard to exercise or conduct normal life activities. A person with heart failure may also have decreased alertness or the ability to concentrate.



As blood is redirected away from the digestive system and liver, a person may lose appetite or feel nauseated. A person may also feel full even if she hasn't eaten. "With heart failure, you may experience a loss or change in appetite, or feelings of nausea. Some people have a feeling of being full or nauseous even if they have eaten very little. They may also experience abdominal pain or tenderness," says Heart Failure Matters. "These symptoms are often due to a build-up of fluid around the liver and gut (intestines) interfering with digestion. If you notice any changes in your appetite, or start experiencing problems with digestion, this may be an indication that your heart failure is getting worse and you should consult your doctor or nurse."