Are You at Risk for Heart Failure?
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Are You at Risk for Heart Failure?

6 factors—like weight and certain meds—that could up your risk.

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By Kimberly Goad

Can you lower your risk for heart failure? In a word: yes.

Granted, some risk factors for this common heart condition—such as family history and congenital heart disease—are out of your control. But there are plenty of lifestyle tweaks you can make to lower your risk. And since heart failure is usually caused by damage that weakens the heart muscle, most often due to cardiovascular disease, the same treatments can also prevent a heart attack.

An analysis of research published in 2009 in JAMA found that men who adopted healthy habits—such as maintaining a normal body weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising at least five times a week, not smoking, and limiting alcohol intake—had a lower risk of heart failure, compared with those who didn’t.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is “paramount,” says Andrew Behunin, DO, a cardiologist at MountainStar Heart Center at St. Mark’s Hospital, in Salt Lake City, Utah. In his experience, “the most important thing is to get out and be active, because a lot of the other things will come along with that. If you’re active, you’ll be more mindful of your food choices, your blood pressure will improve and you won’t want to smoke.”

Keep reading to learn more about 6 risk factors for heart failure and what you can do to lower each of them.

High blood pressure

2 / 7 High blood pressure

A blood pressure reading measures the force of your blood flowing through your arteries, the pipelines that carry blood from your heart to other parts of your body. High blood pressure, however, forces the heart to work harder to pump blood, which over time can weaken and stiffen the muscle. It also contributes to hardening of the arteries, leading to decreased blood flow to your heart. People with high blood pressure have a higher risk of vascular events like stroke, heart failure, and heart attack.

Lower your risk:
Some people may not even know they have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, so it’s important to be screened at least every two years by your doctor if you are over the age of 20. If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, talk to your doctor about treatment options. Since obesity is the leading cause of high blood pressure, it’s important to make lifestyle changes that include managing weight, limiting sodium, eating a well-balanced diet, reducing alcohol intake and staying physically active. All of these will go a long way toward keeping your blood pressure in the healthy range. Your doctor may also suggest the use of medications as well.

Obesity

3 / 7 Obesity

Excess weight raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol; it lowers HDL (good) cholesterol; and it puts strain on the heart.

Lower your risk:
“Losing as much as 10 percent of your body weight can reduce your blood pressure by 10 points,” Behunin says, referring to people who are overweight. To lose weight, try these strategies from the American Heart Association (AHA).

  • Set a series of realistic short-term goals to help you reach your long-term goal
  • Keep a food diary to track how much you eat, aiming to reduce your daily calorie intake
  • Combine a healthy diet with exercise. Log at least 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity—a brisk walk, for instance. Work with your doctor to figure out the best type of exercise for you.
Sleep apnea

4 / 7 Sleep apnea

This common sleep disorder can occur when your upper airway is repeatedly blocked during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow. This could cause life-threatening pauses in breathing. That, in turn, can weaken the heart. Although there are many causes, both heart failure and sleep apnea overlap in many ways. In fact, the disorder can often be found in 12 to 35 percent of people who have experienced heart failure. Left undiagnosed or untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious complications, including heart attack.

Lower your risk:
For most people with heart failure and sleep apnea, the treatment generally involves a combination of losing weight and using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Following a heart healthy diet and getting regular exercise can be the first steps you take towards weight loss. Treating sleep apnea will also improve your blood pressure, the main risk factor in developing heart failure.

Cigarette smoking

5 / 7 Cigarette smoking

You already know that cigarette smoking is bad for you. What you may not know is the specific damage is does to your heart. With each cigarette, you’re temporarily increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Smoking contributes to the hardening of your arteries and damages muscle tissue directly.

No matter how many years you’ve been smoking, there are plenty of benefits of quitting right now. Once you stop smoking, heart health immediately improves and you start to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

A study published in 2013 in JAMA found that former smokers without diabetes had about half as much risk of developing cardiovascular disease as people who smoke. “One year after quitting cigarettes, your risk of heart disease is reduced by half,” says Behunin. Even people who have already had a heart attack can cut their risk of another once they quit.

Lower your risk:
If you’re unable to quit smoking on your own, talk to your healthcare provider about available tools and treatments. Research suggests that behavioral support—whether it’s face-to-face, by phone, or online—and using quit aids, like patches, lozenges, gum or prescription drugs, can be effective treatment.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that participants who used a more than one quit aid were most successful in kicking the habit; specifically, almost 30 percent of those who used a nicotine lozenge and took the bupropion (Wellbutrin), a prescription drug stopped smoking. Almost 27 percent of those who used a nicotine patch and nicotine lozenges were still abstaining at the six-month mark. “There are lots of quit aids, but ultimately there’s no magic bullet,” says Behunin. “What it requires is having a personalized plan—whether it’s going cold turkey with the help of nicotine gum or using prescription meds like Wellbutrin or Chantix—and someone like a quit coach who will hold you accountable.”

Certain medications

6 / 7 Certain medications

If you have any risk factors for heart failure, it’s important to discuss the use of other medications with your doctor. There are a number of meds that may lead to complications. One example is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, for short); over-the-counter NSAIDS like ibuprofen and naproxen, as well as prescription varieties, can worsen the risk for heart failure for people with underlying cardiovascular issues. Other medications to speak with your doctor about before taking include some drugs that treat high blood pressure, cancer, blood conditions, neurological conditions, psychiatric conditions, lung conditions, arrhythmias, urological conditions, and inflammatory conditions and infections.

Lower your risk:
Make sure everyone on your healthcare team has a full list of all the meds you’re currently taking. Ask your doctors about any potential interactions or if a medication increases your risk of a cardiovascular event. They will be able to inform you if the benefits of continuing a drug are greater than the risks.

Drinking alcohol

7 / 7 Drinking alcohol

Heavy drinking over a long period of time can increase your risk for heart failure or lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease. Even those who drink in moderation should discuss the risks with their doctor.

Lower your risk:
If you drink, do so in moderation only after consulting your doctor. According to the AHA, that means no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor, or 1 ounce of 100-proof liquor.) If you don’t drink, there is no health benefit to starting now.