Doctor checks patient's blood pressure

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

Some risk factors for this common heart condition - such as family history and congenital heart disease - are out of your control; however, there are plenty of lifestyle changes that can lower your risk.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is "paramount," says Timothy Hamilton, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. 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."

Here are six risk factors for heart failure and tips for lowering your risk for each:

1. 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 can weaken and stiffen the muscle over time. 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 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. 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. Your doctor may also suggest the use of medications.

2. Obesity

Excess weight raises blood pressure and blood cholesterol, lowers HDL (good) cholesterol and 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 determine the best type of exercise for you.

3. 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, which may weaken the heart. Although there are many causes, both heart failure and sleep apnea overlap in many ways. In fact, the disorder is often 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. Treating sleep apnea will also improve your blood pressure, the main risk factor in developing heart failure.

4. Cigarette Smoking

With each cigarette, you're temporarily increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Smoking also contributes to the hardening of your arteries and damages muscle tissue directly. No matter how many years you've been smoking, there are many benefits of quitting right now. Once you stop smoking, heart health immediately improves and you startto reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

"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, are effective treatments.

"There are lots of quit aids, but ultimately there's no magic bullet," says Behunin. "It requires having a personalized plan - whether it's going cold turkey with the help of nicotine gum or using prescription meds and someone like a quit coach who will hold you accountable."

5. Certain Medications

If you have risk factors for heart failure, it's important to discuss the use of other medications with your doctor, as certain meds may lead to complications.

Medications to speak with your doctor about include 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.

6. 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 and only after consulting your doctor. According to the AHA, men should consume no more than two drinks per day and women should consume no more than one drink per day.