More about risk factors for heart failure
Some risk factors for heart failure are beyond your control. Other factors are totally or partially in your control. For example, certain risk factors exist because of who you are, others result from your lifestyle choices, and still others come from your environment.
- Age. As you age, your risk of developing heart failure rises dramatically. Heart failure is the most common reason for hospital stays in older adults.
- Gender. Overall, men are at a higher risk for heart failure than women. This difference narrows as women get older. Middle-aged men have a much higher risk of developing heart failure than middle-aged women, but older men and older women have similar rates of heart failure. The cause of heart failure in men is usually coronary artery disease. The cause of heart failure in women is more likely to be high blood pressure or an unknown cause. Studies suggest that estrogen, a female hormone, plays a major role in the cardiac health of women.
- Ethnicity. Blacks are at higher risk for the disease than whites. This may be because blacks also have a higher rate of high blood pressure and diabetes, two major risk factors for heart failure. The incidence of heart failure between black men and white men does not differ, but black women are much more likely to develop heart failure than white women. Native Americans also have a much higher risk for heart failure than whites.
Family history. If any of your close relatives have or had heart failure, you may be genetically predisposed to heart failure. Being genetically predisposed means that there may be something in your genes that could put you at risk for heart failure. This is especially true if any of your relatives developed this condition early in life. In addition, if you have a family history of certain risk factors for heart failure (such as diabetes or high cholesterol), you could also be at higher risk for developing these conditions and consequently heart failure. In particular, a family history of cardiomyopathy may put you at risk for heart failure.
- High blood pressure (hypertension). You have hypertension if your blood pressure measures 140/90 mm Hg or above in your doctor's office. Hypertension is a proven cause of coronary artery disease, and it can put you at risk for developing heart failure as well, because it can lead to left ventricular hypertrophy (thickening of the heart muscle) and dilation of the left ventricle, which can lead to diastolic and systolic heart failure, respectively.
- Diabetes. Heart diseases, including heart failure, are 2 to 4 times more likely in people with diabetes. Conditions that are more common in people with diabetes, such as obesity and high blood pressure, increase the risk for heart failure.
Lifestyle choices. Lifestyle choices are things that you do (or not do) from day to day that affect your health.
- Cigarette smoking. Smoking contributes to the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol levels and damaging your blood vessels. Women who smoke have an even higher risk than men who smoke. Even if you don't smoke, regular exposure to secondhand smoke is believed to increase your risk of heart disease.
- Alcohol. The effects of alcohol on your heart vary, depending on how much you drink. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can raise your blood pressure, trigger irregular heartbeats, and damage your heart muscle. Binge drinkers also have a much higher risk of having heart emergencies. However, light to moderate drinking (no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women) may protect your heart. This is most helpful if you are at high risk for heart failure. Light to moderate drinking may even reduce your risk of a heart attack and protect you against coronary artery disease.
- Physical activity. A lifestyle that does not involve regular exercise harms your heart. Lack of exercise can increase your risk of a high heart rate and high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar levels, blood clots, obesity, and stress.
- Eating habits. Poor eating habits can lead to obesity. Obesity is also related to hypertension, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, and lack of exercise, all conditions that increase the risk of heart attack. Abdominal obesity (a "beer belly") poses a particular risk.
Other psychological factors. Mental stress is also a trigger for heart disease. Depression can also be a risk factor for heart diseases like heart failure.
Simply having a risk factor associated with heart failure does not mean that you will develop heart failure. In fact, many risk factors are controllable. Proper lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your risk of developing heart failure. However, even if you have no risk factors, you still may develop heart failure. This is why your doctor can never use your risk factors alone to determine whether you have heart failure.