Prevalence of unrecognized heart failure in older persons with shortness of breath on exertion

Eur J Heart Fail. 2014 Jul;16(7):772-7. doi: 10.1002/ejhf.110. Epub 2014 May 26.


Aims: The majority of patients with heart failure are diagnosed in primary care, but underdiagnosis is common. Shortness of breath is a prevalent complaint of older persons and one of the key symptoms of heart failure. We assessed the prevalence of unrecognized heart failure in elderly patients presenting to primary care with shortness of breath on exertion.

Methods and results: This was a cross-sectional selective screening study. Patients aged 65 years or over presenting to primary care with shortness of breath on exertion in the previous 12 months were eligible when not known to have an established, echocardiographic confirmed diagnosis of heart failure. All participants underwent history taking, physical examination, electrocardiography, and a blood test of N-terminal pro B-type natriuretic peptide (NTproBNP). Only those with an abnormal electrocardiogram or NTproBNP level exceeding the exclusionary cut-point for non-acute onset heart failure (>15 pmol/L (≈125 pg/mL) underwent open-access echocardiography. An expert panel established presence or absence of heart failure according to the criteria of the European Society of Cardiology heart failure guidelines. The mean age of the 585 participants was 74.1 (SD 6.3) years, and 54.5% were female. In total, 92 (15.7%, 95% CI 12.9-19.0) participants had heart failure: 17 (2.9%, 95% CI 1.8-4.7) had heart failure with a reduced ejection fraction (≤45%), 70 (12.0%, 95% CI 9.5-14.9) had heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, and five (0.9%, 95% CI 0.3-2.1) had isolated right-sided heart failure.

Conclusion: Elderly primary care patients with shortness of breath on exertion often have unrecognized heart failure, mainly with preserved ejection fraction.

Keywords: Diagnosis; Echocardiography; Elderly; Heart failure; Prevalence; Primary care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Dyspnea / blood
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis*
  • Dyspnea / diagnostic imaging
  • Echocardiography
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart Failure / blood
  • Heart Failure / diagnosis*
  • Heart Failure / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Natriuretic Peptide, Brain / blood
  • Peptide Fragments / blood
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Stroke Volume


  • Peptide Fragments
  • pro-brain natriuretic peptide (1-76)
  • Natriuretic Peptide, Brain