TUESDAY, March 25 (HealthDay News) -- Older people with heart failure face heightened odds of complications and death after non-cardiac surgeries, according to the largest study ever conducted on the issue.
"We're trying to draw attention to this major problem," said lead researcher Dr. Adrian F. Hernandez, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Heart failure, the progressive loss of the heart's ability to pump blood, is widespread among older Americans, but it sometimes is overlooked as a risk factor when surgery is needed, he said.
"Most physicians focus on whether [older patients] have coronary artery disease or have a risk of heart attack," Hernandez said. "Heart failure is by far a more important risk factor, but it doesn't usually have greater weight when they want to identify patients at risk of complications or consider how they want to treat them after surgery."
Symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, fatigue and swelling of the legs.
Hernandez' group published the study in the April issue of Anesthesiology. They used Medicare data on more than 159,000 people undergoing major surgery not involving the heart, such as hip replacement operations. Past estimates have put the incidence of heart failure in the older population between 5 percent and 12 percent, but the new study found the condition in almost 20 percent of those having surgery.
The study divided the participants into three groups: those with heart failure, with or without coronary artery disease; those with only coronary artery disease; and those with neither condition.
Nearly 98 percent of all those who had surgery were discharged soon afterward from the hospital. But 17.1 percent of those with heart failure had to be re-hospitalized within 30 days, compared to 10.8 percent of those with coronary artery disease and just 8.1 percent of those with neither ailment.
In the month after a surgery, 1.6 percent of those with heart failure died, compared to 0.5 percent for those with coronary artery disease and 0.3 percent of those with neither condition, the study found.
Steps can be taken to reduce the toll, Hernandez said.
"The first thing is to check on what the conditions are that might influence the patients outcomes," he said. "We have to identify therapies that lower the risk of a poor outcome and assure that all patients, when they have surgery, are carefully monitored."
Close attention should be paid to be sure that symptoms of heart failure are kept to a minimum, Hernandez said. Medications such as beta blockers and diuretics can be used to keep heart failure under control, he added.
But he noted that it's not certain how effective such measures might be in reducing risks -- only a rigorous, controlled study could answer that question definitively.
"We are planning to do such studies, but our planning is still in the early stages," he said. "We still need to identify sponsors of such a study."
One expert applauded the new research.
The increase in surgery risk due to heart failure has been noted before, but "this is a big study that involves a lot of people. It solidifies that the risk is real, and the risk is substantial," said Dr. Robert Hobbs, a staff cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic whose work covers heart failure and transplant medicine.
Measures that can be taken to reduce the risk include simply not performing surgery, if possible, on someone whose life might be endangered, Hobbs said. "If surgery is necessary for someone with heart failure, there should be targeted use of heart failure medications before the operation and an effort to avoid overloading the body with intravenous fluid during the procedure," he said.
"And we would certainly watch them more carefully in the postoperative period," Hobbs added.
Learn about heart failure, its symptoms and treatment, from the U.S. Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Adrian F. Hernandez, M.D., assistant professor, medicine, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Robert Hobbs, M.D., cardiologist, Cleveland Clinic; April 2008 Anesthesiology