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Heart Failure: Am I at Risk, and Can I Prevent It?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 08, 2021

Heart failure is common in the United States. Nearly 6 million Americans live with it. But there are simple steps you can take to lower your odds of getting the condition.

What Is Heart Failure?

You get heart failure when your heart can't pump enough blood and oxygen to your muscles and organs. Doctors haven't found a cure, but many people with heart failure live active lives.

Heart failure usually doesn't sneak up on people, but develops over time and for a number of reasons. It's important to know if you're more likely to get it so you can take the steps to help prevent it.

How Could I Get It?

Certain problems can make your heart work harder than it should and weaken the muscle. Some of these are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Past heart attack
  • Being too overweight

Things like drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and using illegal drugs are all known to damage your heart.

Some things that raise your chances of heart failure are out of your control, including:

  • Race (African-American people are more likely to have heart failure)
  • Heart defects you're born with
  • Age (your odds go up if you're 65 or older)

Can I Prevent Heart Failure?

You can lower your odds of getting heart failure. And the earlier you start, the better your chances. You can begin with a few of these simple steps:

  • Stay active. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine. Try for at least 2 1/2 hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise -- the kind that gets your heart pumping. And try not to sit around for more than 2 hours a day. That can raise your heart failure risk.
  • Don't use illegal drugs. Even occasional use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and ecstasy can harm your heart. It can make your heart rate and blood pressure go up. It may also lead to hardening of your arteries. All these problems raise your risk of heart failure.
  • Treat heart and other conditions. Other heart problems, like heart attacks, raise your chances of getting heart failure. So treat your high blood pressure and take any medication your doctor prescribes to lower your cholesterol levels. 
  • Don't smoke. If you have the tobacco habit, quit. Ask your doctor for advice on ways to stop. Smoking damages your arteries, which can start you down the road to heart failure.
  • Eat right. Good nutrition is important if you want to prevent heart failure. Limit saturated fats, trans fats, extra sugar, and salt in your diet. Instead, go for fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein. Also choose "good fats" in olive oil, walnuts, avocados, and fish like salmon or tuna. 
  • Limit alcohol. While a little alcohol can be good for your heart, a lot is not. If you're a man, stick to no more than two drinks a day (a 5-ounce glass of wine equals 1 drink). Women should only have one drink a day. And if you already have heart failure, alcohol can make it worse.
  • Lose weight if you need to. Aim for a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9. And pay particular attention to belly fat, which can increase your risk of heart disease even more than fat on other parts of your body. Even a small weight loss can add up to big gains in your health.
  • Manage stress. It can raise your blood pressure. Try to keep yourself on an even keel with meditation, counseling, or yoga. 
  • Get a good night's sleep. A long-term sleep problem like sleep apnea can raise your chance of heart failure. If you have it, get treatment. And take steps to get better sleep, like going to bed and getting up at the same time every night, and keeping electronics out of the bedroom.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Who Is at Risk for Heart Failure?" "How Can Heart Failure Be Prevented?" "Physical Activity," "Quitting Smoking," "Heart-healthy eating," "Aiming for a Healthy Weight," "Managing stress."

Mayo Clinic: "Heart Failure."

American Heart Association: "About Heart Failure," "Exercising more, sitting less helps men prevent heart failure," "Alcohol and Heart Health," "Illegal Drugs and Heart Disease," "Causes of Heart Failure."

CDC: "Heart Disease and Stroke.”

American Heart Association Go Red For Women: "Middle-Age Fitness: Reduce Heart Failure Risk."

Pandey, A. American Heart Journal, February 2015.

NIH Senior Health: "Heart Failure."

Young, D.R., Circulation: Heart Failure, January 2014.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Congestive Heart Failure: Prevention, Treatment and Research."

American Thoracic Society: "Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease."

Gottlieb, D.J. Circulation, July 27, 2010.

Harvard Medical School: "Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep."

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