Exercise, healthy eating, and appropriate treatment will protect the heart’s pumping power.
Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart stops working; it means the heart has lost some of its strength and can no longer deliver enough oxygen-enriched blood to meet all of the body’s demands during physical activity. Heart failure risk grows with age, and more than 650,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the condition this year.
Many cases of heart failure stem from preventable diseases of the heart and blood vessels, so the most powerful way to prevent it is to stay physically active, eat a healthy diet, stay slim, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol only in moderation. These steps help to prevent heart disease in the first place. And for anyone who does develop heart problems or high blood pressure, the same steps plus appropriate medications can help prevent heart disease from progressing to heart failure.
The sooner you start, the better, because the earliest signs of heart failure can be subtle and hard to detect. “Pay attention to your body and don’t assume that decreases in function are just signs of getting older,” says Dr. Lynne Stevenson, director of the Cardiomyopathy and Heart Failure Program at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
What is heart failure?
A typical early warning sign of heart failure is shortness of breath when you exert yourself or when you lie down. Another is feeling fatigued after doing chores you once performed with relative ease. Sometimes heart failure causes swelling in the ankles.
Heart failure may strike the left side of your heart, the right side, or both sides. The heart may be unable to push blood outward as strongly as before (systolic heart failure), or the heart may have trouble filling with blood between beats (diastolic heart failure).
What causes heart failure?
Heart failure occurs when something damages the heart muscle or reduces the heart’s ability to pump effectively. This damage could be the result of a heart attack that damages part of the heart muscle and makes the remaining muscle work harder. The source of the damage could also be an infection, chronic alcoholism, past treatment with chemotherapy, diseased heart valves, abnormal heart rhythms, or inadequately controlled diabetes or high blood pressure. In some people, the damage is due to a genetic defect in the heart muscle.
More than half of heart failure cases result from coronary artery disease, which can reduce blood flow to the heart or lead to blocked arteries that damage part of the heart muscle. No matter what the cause, the failing heart can no longer keep up with the normal demands placed on it to pump blood to the rest of your body.
Inadequately treated high blood pressure also leads to heart failure due to stiffening of the heart. As the heart pumps against the higher pressure in your arteries, the heart muscle thickens and cannot pump as well.
Keeping heart failure at bay
For men who have had a heart attack or who have established heart disease or diabetes, but who do not yet have heart failure, following the recommended treatment plan is crucial to preventing the condition. For those with high blood pressure, keeping blood pressure under good control is also vital. If heart failure has already begun to set in, medications can help compensate for pumping problems and keep them from getting worse.
“If you have any kind of heart disease, it needs to be carefully monitored,” Dr. Stevenson says. “You may need to be on medication that will help to stabilize your heart as well as to help you feel better and do more.”
Besides taking medication, there is much more you can do to protect yourself—especially exercising regularly. Don’t avoid physical exertion for fear of straining a weak heart. Check in with your doctor about what’s safe, but stay as physically active as you can. “Exercise helps decrease your risk of heart failure,” Dr. Stevenson says. “And once you have heart failure, it helps maintain and improve your level of activity.” Exercise also boosts your mood and energy level.
Don’t forget: The whole idea of keeping your heart working up to its potential is so you can keep doing things—walking, shopping, traveling, and staying connected to friends and family. “It’s very important that even people who have advanced heart failure be encouraged to set goals for what they enjoy doing and make sure they continue to actively pursue those goals in their lives,” Dr. Stevenson says.