Your heart may be relatively small, but it has a big job to do. Each day, the fist-size organ pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood throughout your body, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That is, of course, when it’s operating as it should be.
The heart is a critical part of your cardiovascular system, and it has two main roles: to send blood to the lungs so it can be oxygenated, and then to pump that fresh, oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood back out to the rest of the body, David N. Smith, MD, a cardiologist at Premier Cardiovascular Care in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a clinical assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF. When the heart isn’t pumping well enough to perform these functions properly, that’s considered heart failure.
With heart failure, “the heart doesn’t circulate the blood adequately enough to allow the person to do normal activities,” Keith C. Ferdinand, MD, Gerald S. Berenson Endowed Chair in preventive cardiology and professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine, tells SELF. You may have trouble walking up the stairs or carrying groceries, for example. (Generally, though, the symptoms of heart failure can be wide-ranging.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 6.2 million adults in the United States are living with heart failure. By 2030, that number is estimated to rise by 46%, affecting more than 8 million people.1
Talking with your doctor to understand your risk and doing your best to adopt lifestyle habits that keep your heart strong will help you mount the best defense. Here’s what you should know to keep heart failure out of your future.
How to reduce your heart failure risk
There are several factors that can increase your risk of heart failure; genetics, a history of cardiovascular disease, certain infections, certain underlying conditions, access to reliable health care, and your overall lifestyle can all play a role in your chances of developing the condition. So how do you minimize your chances? Consider starting with these three changes:
1. Keep tabs on your blood pressure.
There’s a reason this is always part of your annual physical. High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) is a well-established marker for heart disease, including heart failure.2 When you have high blood pressure, the heart becomes thicker and stiffer, and the cells inside the arteries—which transport blood away from the heart—are damaged. So your heart will have a pretty tough time pumping the proper amount of blood, Dr. Ferdinand explains. Eventually, the heart can become strained and weakened, leading to heart failure.
To keep your blood pressure in the optimal range—which is less than 120/80mm Hg—you’ll want to prioritize exercise; eat nutritious meals you enjoy; get quality sleep; drink less alcohol; avoid smoking (or make a plan to quit if you do); and keep your stress levels in check (we know, easier said than done, but these tips may help).
2. Make small changes to your meals.
Eating a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean eating a restrictive diet. Making small changes to your daily meals over time can make a big impact. The biggest tweak to consider: Reduce your sodium intake. Of course, some sodium in the diet is essential—and salt makes your meals taste good too.
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