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How to Prevent Heart Failure

Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome with physiological signs and symptoms that develop when the heart does not function properly. HF affects a person’s life expectancy. Medical guidelines indicate that a diagnosis of heart failure is based on multiple criteria such as physical symptoms and signs, diagnostic test results showing evidence of cardiac dysfunction, and/or a favorable response to treatment.1

There is no single cause or cure for HF. It develops in part due to risks and contributing causes, some of which are preventable and others that are not. HF results from the impact of other health or medical conditions that have damaged the heart or make it work too hard.1 Some risk factors for heart failure include age, race, family history, and socioeconomic factors.2 Some things are out of your control, but you can take steps to prevent heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases that greatly affect the quality of your life. Living a healthy lifestyle and having regular medical check-ups can help you manage conditions that might lead to the development of heart failure.3-4

Age matters for heart failure

Heart failure is clearly associated with age. As we grow older, our heart works longer and harder and for many, is less efficient as time passes. Aging is not something we can control. But we do have some control over how we age.4

Good health habits can influence how you feel

Whatever your age, good health habits can influence the way you feel and help to prevent some illnesses. Heart failure typically develops over time. Poor health habits can be addressed by making changes. Smoking, drug and alcohol use and obesity are risk factors that can be diminished by taking preventive action.2,4

Get plenty of exercise

Endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility are the 4 elements of physical activity. If you have not exercised in a long time, check with your medical team and start slowly. It can take time to build up endurance.5 Regular physical activity, at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or a combination can benefit everyone.5-6 The American Heart Association published guidelines for adults and children.4-6 Strength and resistance training at least 2 days a week can help build muscles to strengthen the core and boost your metabolic rate, thereby burning additional calories even when the body is at rest.4,6

There are a lot of crossover benefits in varying your exercise to keep it interesting and the body fit. Endurance activities like running or rowing engage your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, helping to keep them healthy as part of overall fitness. Getting regular physical activity can reduce the risk of heart failure as well as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.5

Eat healthy

Eat a heart-healthy diet. Foods low in saturated fat and salt can help reduce your risk of developing heart failure. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is based on eating whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables high in fiber and low in fat. Fish, lean meat, and limited sugar and alcohol are other hallmarks of a plan that promotes good heart health.2 A healthy diet goes a long way in keeping your heart in good shape.

Avoid smoking

Smoking is hazardous to your health. The chemicals tobacco contains can damage your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Even exposure to second-hand smoke can be harmful and compromise your lungs, increasing your risk for heart failure and lung cancer.2 If you are already a smoker there are numerous cessation programs available to help you stop smoking.7

Manage stress

Chronic stress can raise your heart rate and blood pressure. This can cause damage your artery walls. Managing your stress and blood pressure can preserve heart health. Getting enough sleep is also an important factor in managing stress.

Warning signs

Learn the warning signs of heart attack and stroke.2,8 They may be experienced differently by men and women and include:

  • Chest discomfort – uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in chest.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body- pain or discomfort in one or both arms, in the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath – with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs – experiencing cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Figure 1. Common heart attack warning signs

common heart attack warning signs

What can we do about it?

Increasing public awareness about heart failure and the importance of prevention can help the general population learn more about good health habits and the impact of the choices they make. Providing information on your family medical history can help your medical team evaluate multiple factors including heredity, comorbidities, and environmental exposures.9 Research into improvements in disease management and cardiac care, including advances in technology, pharmaceuticals, genetics, biomarkers, and general health habits can all contribute to improved outcomes when treating heart failure. Preventing heart failure is a shared responsibility, it involves taking care of yourself inside and out.4

Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: October 2019
  1. Mosterd A, Hoes AW. Clinical epidemiology of heart failure. Heart. 2007;93:1137-1146.
  2. Dharmarajan K, Rich MW. Epidemiology, Pathophysiology, and Prognosis of Heart Failure in Older Adults. Heart Fail Clin. 2017;13:417-426.
  3. Horwich TB, Fonarow GC. Prevention of Heart Failure. JAMA Cardiol. 2017;2(1):116. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2016.3394
  4. How to Help Prevent Heart Disease At Any Age. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/how-to-help-prevent-heart-disease-at-any-age. Accessed 9/3/19.
  5. Endurance Exercise (Aerobic). American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/endurance-exercise-aerobic. Accessed 9/3/19.
  6. Strength and Resistance Training Exercise. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/strength-and-resistance-training-exercise. Accessed 9/3/19.
  7. Smoking and Your Heart. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/smoking-and-your-heart. Accessed 9/4/19
  8. Warning signs of a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack. Accessed 9/4/19
  9. Schocken DD. Benjamin EL. Fonarow GC. et al. Prevention of Heart Failure. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.188965 Circulation. 2008;117:2544–2565.