Heart failure occurs when the cells of the heart become damaged and the heart cannot pump blood effectively. Maintaining good nutrition, exercising regularly, and avoiding harmful behaviors are key to preventing heart failure.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more than 6 million people in the United States currently live with heart failure. Heart failure means that damage to the heart has led to weakness and stiffness, so the heart cannot supply the cells in the body with enough blood.

A person can lower their risk of heart failure by addressing health conditions that may contribute to that risk, such as obesity, anemia, and high blood pressure.

Heart failure prevention requires a long-term commitment to living a healthy lifestyle. This article provides an overview of strategies for heart failure prevention.

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Infographic by Brittany England

According to the American College of Cardiology and the AHA, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the most effective way to prevent heart failure. A person must make a long-term or lifelong commitment to this lifestyle in order to have the best possible outcome.

Lifestyle strategies for heart failure prevention include:

  • healthy diet
  • weight management
  • regular exercise
  • avoidance of tobacco and secondhand smoke

Checkups with a doctor can also help people prevent heart failure. A doctor can help a person manage their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, if necessary, and provide tips on a healthy lifestyle.

This risk estimation helps doctors select people who are good candidates for certain medications or interventions to prevent heart failure.

Staying active is the cornerstone of establishing good heart health and preventing heart failure. Getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise can reduce a person’s risk of heart failure. People who engage in vigorous activity can obtain the same benefit in only 75 minutes per week.

The following table shows examples of moderate and vigorous activities.

Moderate intensityVigorous intensity
brisk walking at 2.4–4 mphjogging or running
biking at 5–9 mphbiking at 10 mph or faster
ballroom dancingsingles tennis
active yogaswimming laps

Following a healthy diet may involve avoiding or minimizing consumption of some foods and increasing consumption of others. To help prevent heart failure, a person can avoid or limit the following:

  • trans fatty acids, which may be present in foods such as baked goods and fried foods
  • red meat
  • refined carbohydrates such as white bread and breakfast cereals
  • sweetened beverages

Healthcare professionals recommend favoring foods such as:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • nuts
  • whole grains
  • lean vegetable or animal proteins
  • fish

The following health conditions can contribute to heart failure risk, especially if a person does not receive treatment for them:

  • High cholesterol: Having high cholesterol levels is an established risk factor for heart failure. Depending on a person’s risk estimate and blood cholesterol levels, doctors may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications.
  • High blood pressure: Managing high blood pressure is also an important strategy for preventing heart failure. People may need medication to lower their blood pressure.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, including heart failure. If a person needs medication to regulate their blood sugar, the first option is metformin. Doctors sometimes combine metformin with other types of medication, such as sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 inhibitors and glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists.

By seeking optimal treatment and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, people who have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure can reduce their risk of heart failure.

Behaviors such as smoking, consuming drugs, and drinking too much alcohol can increase a person’s risk of heart failure:

  • Smoking: Both smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can contribute to heart failure. Avoiding smoking, or quitting if a person already smokes, can help prevent heart attacks that may cause heart failure.
  • Illegal drugs: Illegal drugs such as cocaine can cause heart failure. A 2017 study suggests that people who use cocaine can reverse signs of heart failure if they stop using the drug. However, continued cocaine use can further contribute to heart damage.
  • Alcohol: The key to understanding the effects of alcohol on heart health is quantity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that males consume no more than two drinks per day and females consume no more than one per day. This is a non-medication option to lower blood pressure, which lowers the risk of heart failure.

Read more about the link between heart failure, smoking, and alcohol.

Maintaining a moderate weight can help prevent heart failure.

Strategies such as a diet and exercise plan can help a person reach or maintain a moderate weight. If necessary, healthcare professionals may discuss other lifestyle factors that can help with weight loss and management, such as:

  • managing stress
  • maintaining good sleep hygiene
  • addressing other individualized barriers to successful weight loss and management

According to the CDC, stress, depression, and anxiety can negatively affect the heart.

People who feel stress or anxiety may experience increased heart reactivity, such as a fast heartbeat and higher blood pressure. They may also have a lower blood flow to the heart and higher cortisol levels in the blood. These effects of stress on the body can contribute to calcium buildup in the blood vessels.

Stress, trauma, or anxiety may lead people to adopt unhealthy habits. For example, they may begin smoking, reduce their physical activity levels, or stop taking their medications.

Addressing mental health concerns with a healthcare professional can allow people to get the help they may need. Professionals can help people navigate the many available mental health resources.

During sleep, blood pressure drops. People who have trouble sleeping or lack sleep may have higher blood pressure for longer periods during the day. The CDC recommends that adults get 7–9 hours of good quality sleep per night.

To improve the quality of their sleep, a person can try:

  • sticking to a sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day
  • getting natural light
  • avoiding exercise within a few hours of going to sleep
  • avoiding artificial light from any source within a few hours of going to sleep
  • avoiding food and drink within a few hours of going to sleep
  • keeping their bedroom cool, dark, and quiet

Read more about why sleep is essential for health.

Sometimes the symptoms of heart failure are silent. Common symptoms that people may experience with heart failure include:

  • difficulty breathing during activities in daily life
  • difficulty breathing while lying down
  • weight gain and swelling of the feet, legs, ankles, or stomach
  • ongoing tiredness or weakness

Possible causes of heart failure include:

  • coronary artery disease
  • heart attack
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • a disease of the heart valves

Read more about the early signs of heart failure.

People with a family history of heart failure should consult a doctor about screening tests.

Any person experiencing symptoms of heart failure should contact a doctor. Many symptoms of heart failure are similar to the symptoms of heart attack and angina, which are medical emergencies.

Learn more about how to spot a heart attack.

Heart failure prevention requires a lifelong effort. To effectively prevent heart failure, people must adopt different approaches.

Following a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting good quality sleep, and addressing other medical conditions can help a person prevent heart failure.