Medical Advances in the Treatment of Congestive Heart Failure

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Abstract

The increased incidence and prevalence of congestive heart failure place a high priority on novel treatment strategies. Left ventricular ejection fraction remains the single most valuable measurement providing both diagnostic and prognostic insights. The most systematic approach to heart failure involves an objective assessment of functional disability, to include exercise tests such as a 6-minute walk under standardized conditions. Left ventricular dysfunction incites a host of neurohumoral compensations that are of fundamental importance in the heart failure syndrome expression. Both vasoconstrictor and vasodilator neurohormones are stimulated and provide new therapeutic opportunities. The therapeutic approach to heart failure begins with a strong emphasis on prevention, patient education, and self-participation in therapy with respect to both its monitoring and adjustment. Diuretics remain a mainstay of therapy but, in the face of severe heart failure, may become ineffectual, requiring constant infusion of loop-active diuretics, combination diuretics, or diuretics in association with concomitant low-dose dopamine infusion. Vasodilator therapy has been an important advance: combination hydralazine and nitrate therapy was initially shown to be efficacious in improving survival, and more recently, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, in the form of enalapril, have shown incremental benefit on survival over this combination. Interestingly, there is now evidence from both SOLVD and SAVE to demonstrate an unexpected and, as yet, unexplained reduction in the frequency of both unstable angina and myocardial infarction. Although, on balance, the weight of evidence concerning the long-term efficacy of inotropic agents has been disappointing, especially as it relates to their unfavorable effects on survival, recent information on vesnarinone, an agent with a complex and diversified mechanism of action, suggests that with appropriate doses, improved symptoms and survival are possible. A substantial amount of new information from randomized placebo-controlled trials attests to the symptomatic relief, hemodynamic improvement, and gain in exercise performance achieved by digoxin. A long-term survival study is ongoing to assess its effects on mortality. β-Blockers, especially metoprolol, appear beneficial in some patients with heart failure, possibly related to their reduction in sympathetic nervous activity and restoration of β-receptor population, with resultant improved contractile performance, enhanced myocardial relaxation, and overall increase in cardiac efficiency. Based on available evidence, the best contemporary approach to treatment involves the use of ACE inhibitors coupled with diuretic therapy, either continuous or intermittent, to relieve central or peripheral congestion. The addition of digoxin or a hydralazine nitrate combination is a logical next step, with commencement of low-dose β-blocker a reasonable option. The residual mortality in the treatment groups of large-scale, contemporary, randomized clinical trials of novel therapy suggests substantial continuing need for the development of novel treatment strategies. (Circulation.1994;88:2941–2952.)

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