Q. What is the leading cause of hospitalization of older people? Is it heart attacks or strokes?

Q. What is the leading cause of hospitalization of older people? Is it heart attacks or strokes?

The No. 1 reason people over age 65 go to the hospital is congestive heart failure, or simply heart failure. If you have it, your heart can't pump enough blood. This condition develops over time.

Heart failure is most common in older people, and is more common in African-Americans. Men have a higher rate of heart failure than women.

But because women usually live longer, the condition affects more women in their 70s and 80s.

In normal hearts, veins bring oxygen-poor blood from the body to the right side of the heart. It is then pumped through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, picking up oxygen. From there, the blood returns to the left side of the heart. Then it is pumped through a large artery called the aorta that distributes blood throughout the body.

Heart failure is caused by other diseases or conditions that damage the heart muscle. It is often caused by coronary artery disease, including heart attacks. Diabetes and high blood pressure also contribute to heart failure.

Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in men and women. It happens when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed. People who have had a heart attack are at high risk for developingheart failure.

The most common symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, fatigue, and swelling, which usually occurs in the ankles, feet and legs. Swelling is caused by fluid buildup in the body and can lead to weight gain, frequent urination and a cough.

Because these symptoms are also common for other conditions, your doctor will determine if you have heart failure by doing a detailed medical history, an examination and several tests.

There are a number of things that you can do to reduce risk of coronary artery disease and heart failure. For starters, you should keep the following levels down: body weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar, alcohol and salt. Exercise regularly. And, if you smoke, quit.

There is no cure for heart failure, but it can be controlled.

People with congestive heart failure are usually put on a low-salt diet to prevent fluid build-up. Their doctors may also tell them to lose weight, quit smoking, and reduce alcohol intake.

Medications that are used include diuretics (water pills to reduce fluid); ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and reduce heart stress; beta-blockers to slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure; digoxin to help the heart beat stronger.

People with severe heart failure may also be given a mechanical heart pump. A heart transplant is an option when all other treatments fail to control symptoms.

Fred Cicetti is a freelance health-care writer from Sussex County, N.J. If you would like to ask a question, go to http://healthygeezer.com.