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Dr. Kim Mulvihill ReportingMore than five million people suffer from heart failure in the United States alone. It's the leading cause of hospitalization among the medicare population, costing 25-30 billion dollars in health care costs each year.
Now a high tech pacemaker is giving new hope of changing those alarming numbers. And if it works as well as it seems to, it could be a big advance in the war against heart disease.
With every beat the heart pumps blood through the body. But for millions of people their heart doesn't pump as well as it should. They have heart failure.
Edward Gilbert, M.D., University of Utah Cardiologist: “Some areas are contracting sooner than others and so you lose the efficiency of this continuous contraction, just like you would lose power in a car engine if the timing was off.”
Cardiologist Doctor Edward Gilbert says losing power means overwhelming fatigue, swollen legs and trouble breathing.
Dr. Gilbert: "Patients will have shortness of breath, initially with heavy activity, then with less severe activity, and then at night time while they're lying down, and then finally even at rest."
Medications are the mainstay of treatment, but they're not always enough -- especially when there's a conduction problem in the heart itself.
Dr. Gilbert: "It's particularly problematic in that patient who remains very symptomatic despite their medications. Their risk of re-hospitalization becomes quite high; their risk of death becomes quite high, we're talking in the range of 15 to 25% a year."
In an effort to change that new research has focused on high tech pacemakers. While traditional pacemakers are used when a heart beats too slowly, newer bi-ventricular pacers are designed to put the heart back in sync and improve pumping.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, resynchronization devices can have a big impact in heart failure with improved quality of life -- fewer symptoms and fewer hospitalizations. What's more, when a defibrillator was added it cut the risk of death by 36-percent.
Dr. Gilbert: "A device that would recognize rapid dangerous heart rhythms and shock the heart if necessary to prevent death."
While this can be lifesaving treatment, it's not inexpensive. With a price tag of roughly $40,000 it's reserved for a select group of patients.
These high-tech pacemakers can also do the work of the older pacemakers, and treat slow heart rhythms.