Not all cases of heart failure can be prevented, but for the general population, there are steps you can take to prevent the condition or to delay or slow its onset. The same measures that can help prevent heart failure are also recommended to manage the condition in patients who already have it.
The key to preventing heart failure is to address the underlying conditions that can cause it. The most common causes of heart failure are coronary artery disease, which affects the arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood, heart attack, and diabetes. Each of these conditions can damage the heart muscle and cause it to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body. When the heart is unable to meet the need for blood in the body’s tissues, heart failure results.
Managing the following contributors to heart failure can help prevent its onset:
- Coronary artery disease or prior heart attack. If you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, reducing inflammation and slowing the build-up of plaque (a fatty, waxy substance made up of cholesterol, calcium and other materials) will help keep your heart healthy and reduce the workload on the heart muscle. A combination of lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, quitting smoking, etc.), medication and coronary artery bypass surgery or angioplasty and stenting can help prevent later heart failure.
If you have already had a heart attack, you may have permanent damage to the heart muscle, which can reduce the heart’s ability to pump effectively. Be sure to make the changes that are in your control for the best heart health moving forward. These changes will include lifestyle changes, taking medications exactly as prescribed and follow-up with your healthcare team to track your cardiovascular health over time.
- Diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which your body does not produce the insulin that is necessary to take glucose (sugar) from digested food and make it available to the body’s cells to use for energy. High blood sugar and inflammation caused by diabetes can damage the heart muscle and arteries. People who have diabetes are at much greater risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart failure. Carefully managing diabetes according to your doctor’s instructions can help prevent heart failure.
- High blood pressure (hypertension). Blood pressure is the force with which blood pumps against artery walls. If blood pressure is too high, the force can damage the artery walls. Additionally, the heart muscle has to work harder to pump against this pressure to move blood throughout the body. The heart muscle can begin to weaken from having to pump harder and heart failure can develop. If you don’t know if you have high blood pressure, schedule a check-up with your doctor. If you already have high blood pressure, it is important to take any medications that have been prescribed, get regular exercise, limit alcohol and salt and eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Smoking. If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your cardiovascular health. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries that carry blood throughout your body. Additionally, chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products can directly damage the heart muscle, contributing to heart failure.
- Cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is one of the substances that contributes to the build-up of artery clogging plaque. This build-up occurs in arteries throughout the body and can contribute to coronary artery disease (the disease process that causes heart attacks), heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease (PAD). If you don’t know your cholesterol level, schedule a check-up with your physician to have it tested. If you have a family history of high cholesterol or already know that your cholesterol levels are high, work with your healthcare team to reduce your levels, take medications as prescribed, eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise regularly and quit smoking.
- Physical activity. The recommendation for exercise for most people (even those who have existing cardiovascular disease) is 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Check with your physician about the type, duration and intensity of exercise that would be safest and most beneficial for you. Regular physical activity can lower blood pressure, help manage weight and reduce stress—all of which can help prevent heart failure.
- Alcohol intake. Alcoholism is a substantial contributor to heart failure. Alcohol can be a cardiotoxin; this means that it can damage the heart muscle if too much is consumed. Some research suggests that light drinking may help heart health, but don’t start drinking alcohol if you don’t already. Doing so carries risks of alcohol dependence and other health problems. The recommendation is that women drink no more than one drink per day and that men drink no more than two drinks per day.
- Obesity. Being overweight can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease (disease of the arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood) and other factors that influence risk for heart failure. If you are overweight, you can work with your physician to manage your weight and cardiovascular health.
- Valvular heart disease. Blood flow through the heart muscle is regulated by a series of valves. If you have been diagnosed with a heart valve problem, your heart may be working harder to pump to make up for the diseased valve. This can eventually lead to heart failure. It is important to work closely with your healthcare team to aggressively treat and manage valvular heart disease, including taking medications exactly as prescribed to reduce the workload of the heart muscle.
Everyone should take steps to prevent heart failure simply because the factors that contribute to heart failure also contribute to other forms of cardiovascular disease and problems with other systems in the body. The measures for preventing heart failure are the same measures for good overall health.
To find out more about your risk for heart failure, see Are You at Risk for Heart Failure?
To be aware of early signs of heart failure, see Symptoms of Heart Failure.