Heart failure may be considered a disability if it is severe enough to significantly limit your ability to work or engage in other major life activities. You’ll need proof from your doctor to qualify for benefits.
Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle becomes too weak to adequately pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. In serious cases, heart failure may be considered a disability in the same way that a spinal cord injury or a severe respiratory condition is treated as a disability.
Legally, having a proven disability means you may be eligible for Social Security benefits and accommodations at work. It also means you may be protected against discrimination in housing, education, and other matters.
Though it sounds like a term used to describe a heart that has stopped working, the phrase “heart failure” actually refers to a heart muscle that can no longer pump enough blood to supply the body’s organs, muscles, and other tissue with consistent, robust levels of oxygenated blood.
Heart failure doesn’t develop on its own. Instead, it results from other health conditions that affect the cardiovascular system.
Heart failure can cause health concerns, such as:
- shortness of breath
- reduced ability to exercise
- difficulties with concentration and alertness
- swelling in the legs (called edema) that may make it difficult to walk
Depending on your job description and responsibilities, symptoms from heart failure may make it difficult to perform the duties of a job. As a result, heart failure may be considered a disability.
To qualify as a disability and receive Social Security Disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) addresses heart failure in what is known as the Blue Book, a long list of medical conditions and the criteria that define how severe each condition must be to be classified as a disability.
For heart failure to be considered a disability, according to the SSA’s Blue Book, you must meet one of two conditions:
- You have received a diagnosis of and treatment for heart failure, plus have systolic failure with left ventricular end diastolic dimensions greater than 6.0 centimeters (cm) or have an ejection fraction of 30% or less.
- You have diastolic failure with left ventricular posterior wall plus septal thickness totaling 2.5 cm or greater, with an enlarged left atrium greater than or equal to 4.5 cm with typical or elevated ejection fraction.
Heart failure must limit your ability to continue or complete activities of everyday living to the point where a medical professional determines that you are not able to complete an exercise stress test.
There are other criteria, too, including evidence that an exercise tolerance test causes mental confusion and other complications.
Most countries have laws defining disabilities, as well as the penalties for disability discrimination and the accommodations that should be made in the workplace, schools, housing, and other locations.
In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers these issues and provides remedies for individuals or groups who want to challenge the implementation of ADA rules and policies.
In mild cases of heart failure, symptoms may not be noticeable unless you exercise or otherwise exert yourself physically. In more serious cases, heart failure symptoms can include:
- chest pain or discomfort
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- reduced exercise capacity
- shortness of breath
- trouble concentrating
Heart failure treatment usually involves a combination of lifestyle adjustments and medications. In more serious cases, surgery and implantable devices may be necessary.
Lifestyle changes to support a healthier heart include:
- getting regular exercise
- limiting sodium intake
- managing stress
- avoiding or quit smoking, if you smoke
Medications to treat heart failure can include:
- antihypertensive medications, such as ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and help the blood vessels relax
- beta blockers and other medications to slow heart rate
- digoxin to help the heart beat with more force and bolster circulation
- diuretics and other medications to reduce to sodium and fluid levels in the body
Interventions for people with severe heart failure can include:
- Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD): Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) are devices that correct dangerous arrhythmias that might cause sudden cardiac arrest.
- Mechanical heart pumps: To maintain healthy circulation when the heart muscle grows too weak, you may need a mechanical heart pump.
- Pacemaker: By sending electrical impulses, pacemakers help maintain a steady heart rhythm.
The life expectancy for people with heart failure has improved in recent years with the development of newer treatments, such as implantable pumps. But factors such as a person’s age and the severity of the heart condition can have significant effects on a person’s outlook.
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What can I do if my employer doesn’t acknowledge my heart failure as a disability?
The first step is to notify your employer’s human resources office and explain your concerns. If that doesn’t lead to a positive outcome, you may contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to learn more about your rights and how to address concerns about discrimination or harassment.
How hard is it to get a disability with heart failure?
Because the legal definition of a heart failure disability is complicated and requires proof provided by a licensed medical professional, you will have to work with your doctor to obtain all the necessary test results and other personal medical information.
The process can take time, so patience is essential. If you are refused initially, you may have to gather additional records to challenge the decision.
What heart conditions qualify for disability?
In addition to heart failure, some common conditions that may meet the definition of disability include arrhythmias, cardiovascular disease, congenital heart disease, and a heart transplant.
Heart failure can place some real limits on what you can do, particularly when it comes to working. For that reason, it’s reasonable to pursue disability benefits and accommodations at work or in other situations.
You may need to collect a lot of information from your healthcare team and fill out many applications and forms. But with diligence and the cooperation of your doctors, you may qualify for benefits and opportunities that are rightfully yours.