Elizabeth Taylor Dies of Heart Failure

Legendary Actress, 79, Had Been Diagnosed With Congestive Heart Failure in 2004

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 23, 2011 -- Actress Elizabeth Taylor died of congestive heart failure today in Los Angeles, with her children at her side. She was 79 years old and had been in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for several weeks before her death.

"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love," said Taylor's son, Michael Wilding. "Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us incredibly proud of what she accomplished.

"We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it," Wilding said. "Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."

Taylor had one of the longest and most storied film careers in the history of the movies. She won two Oscar awards and was well known for her charitable work for HIV/AIDS.

The legendary actress was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004. Congestive heart failure refers to the heart's inability to do an adequate job of pumping blood to the body's vital organs.

In addition to congestive heart failure, Taylor had surgery in 2009 to fix a leaky heart valve. But her health problems were not limited to her heart. In 1997, a benign tumor was removed from her brain. She broke her back four times, after which she was confined to a wheelchair. She also had three hip replacement surgeries and was successfully treated for skin cancer.

About Congestive Heart Failure

"Congestive heart failure is a progressive syndrome in which the heart is not able to meet the needs of the body," says heart specialist Ann Bolger, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "It's a very common final stage of many very common diseases."

High blood pressure, past heart attacks, and other chronic conditions put people at risk of developing congestive heart failure, says Bolger, who was not involved in Taylor's care. Heart valve problems can also contribute to its development. The most common symptoms are fatigue, breathlessness, and swelling from fluid buildup. Over time and if left untreated, the symptoms can become quite debilitating. "Even at rest, a person can be short of breath," Bolger says of patients with advanced heart failure.

The onset of symptoms can occur slowly, and Bolger says that it is crucial to recognize if you are having trouble breathing when doing activities that used to require no effort.

There are treatments for congestive heart failure. Advances in technology, as well as understanding of the disease and its risk factors, have raised the likelihood of diagnosing congestive heart failure in its earliest stages, before symptoms become debilitating. One key to that, Bolger says, is keeping an eye on your blood pressure, and keeping it down.

Taylor's Acting Career

Taylor made her acting debut at age 10, in 1942's There's One Born Every Minute. Two years later, she played the role that made her famous: as 13-year-old Velvet Brown in National Velvet.

Over the next six decades, she was cast in nearly 60 films. Several of them are among Hollywood's greatest achievements: A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). She received her first Oscar nomination in 1957, for her role in Raintree Country. She was nominated again the following year (for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and the year after that as well (for Suddenly Last Summer).

In 1960, she won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a high-priced prostitute in Butterfield 8. Her second came six years later. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Taylor played opposite her real-life husband, Richard Burton, in their portrayal of one most dysfunctional couples ever to grace to silver screen.

Taylor's off-screen life was often in the tabloids. She was married eight times – twice to actor Richard Burton.

Taylor's Humanitarian Work

After her life-long friend and Giant co-star Rock Hudson's death from AIDS in 1983, Taylor committed herself to fighting the disease. She helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR) in 1985.

Six years later, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The following year, she received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a special Oscar recognizing her activism and fund-raising.

WebMD managing editor Miranda Hitti contributed to this report.


In the U.S., 1 in every 4 deaths is caused by heart disease. See Answer

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SOURCES: ABC News.MSNBC.comAnn Bolger, MD, William Watt Kerr Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of California, San Francisco.Mayo Clinic: "Heart Failure."American Heart Association: "Types of Heart Failure."Los Angeles Times: "Elizabeth Taylor improving, but remains in hospital." Feb. 15, 2011.New York Times: "Elizabeth Taylor Stricken." March 2, 1997The Kennedy Center: "Elizabeth Taylor."Turner Classic Movies: "Elizabeth Taylor Profile."

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