Background: Heart failure (HF) is difficult to diagnose and treat in older patients. Symptoms may be non-specific and the presence of co-morbidities and polypharmacy complicate treatment strategies. There are, however, few data to quantify the extent of these problems in the very elderly.
Methods: A retrospective study of 116 patients (median age 86; range 65-98) with an established diagnosis of HF during their hospital admission.
Main outcome measures: the accuracy of diagnosis of heart failure according to the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) definition. The aetiology and frequency of associated co-morbidities and the nature of drug treatment.
Results: The specificities of clinical signs, chest X-rays and abnormal ECGs for heart failure (ESC definition) were 50%, 20% and 9%, respectively. Only 28% of patients were admitted for worsening symptoms which could be attributed to HF. None of the patients had HF as their only medical problem. Co-morbidities included chest disease (30%), incontinence (29%), cerebrovascular disease (26%), musculoskeletal problems (41%). Barthel (activities of daily living) score was < or = 16/20 in 35%. Mental state questionnaire (MSQ) score was < or =7/10 in 38%. Ninety percent were taking four or more different medications. Thirty-nine percent were on psychotropic drugs. On discharge, a total of 88% of patients returned home to live independently and 35% were monitored by regular day hospital attendance.
Conclusion: Heart failure in frail elderly patients is often compounded by other major illnesses and polypharmacy which have a profound impact on their functional status. This has implications for the most effective targeting of evidence based treatment.