The term “heart failure” suggests the heart has stopped working, but that’s not the case. Heart failure is a condition in which the heart has grown weaker or become stiffer, and can no longer pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.

There are two main types of heart failure:

  • Left-sided heart failure. This means the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, doesn’t work (either squeeze or relax) properly.
  • Right-sided heart failure. This involves the right ventricle, which pumps blood to the lungs for oxygen.

Congestive heart failure, which occurs when blood starts to back up in the veins, causes tissue to swell, usually in the lower legs. Fluid can also build up in the lungs, making it harder to breathe. Congestive heart failure can occur with left- or right-sided heart failure.

Heart failure is sometimes preceded by a heart attack, unmanaged high blood pressure, or a blood clot that forms in the lung. In addition, many factors that you can manage, as well as risk factors that are non-manageable, can raise the risk of developing this life threatening, but treatable condition.

Heart failure can often be traced to another condition that ultimately causes the heart to work too hard. In some cases, it’s not possible to manage or change the condition. These are non-manageable risk factors.

But there are a number of things you can do to help reduce the risk of heart failure. Many of these are lifestyle choices, and they are known as manageable risk factors.

Manageable risk factors

Among the lifestyle behaviors that can weaken the heart over time are:

  • regular drug and alcohol use
  • sedentary lifestyle, or little to no regular exercise
  • smoking

There are also health conditions that can harm the heart. But if treated effectively, damage to the heart can be limited. Treatable conditions that raise the risk of heart failure include:

Non-manageable risk factors

One of the leading risk factors for heart failure is advancing age. Over the course of a lifetime, the heart begins to wear down. Other risk factors for heart failure that non-manageable include:

  • Family history. If you have a close relative who experienced heart failure, your risk of having heart failure increases significantly.
  • Medical history. Certain health conditions, such as a previous heart attack or thyroid disease, can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Sex. Men and women both experience heart failure, but men tend to develop it at a younger age, while women tend to have worse symptoms.
  • Race or ethnicity. Black people have higher incidence for heart failure, compared with people of other races.

If you have non-manageable risk factors, that doesn’t mean you will experience heart failure. There are many things that you can do to help reduce your risk.

One of the main ways to reduce the risk of heart failure is to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes the following strategies:

  • Maintain a healthy weight for your body size through regular exercise and diet, such as the Mediterranean-style eating plan.
  • Reduce your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams or less per day, as recommended by the American Heart Association.
  • Exercise all or most days of the year, aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. If you’re having difficulty doing so, ask a doctor for help developing a smoking cessation plan. Some programs and products might also help.

Your doctor may also recommend reducing your fluid intake to 2 quarts, or about 2,000 milliliters, of fluid per day or less, but don’t restrict fluid intake without first asking a doctor.

One trick for monitoring your fluid intake is to mark your water glass or bottle with a dry erase pen every time you refill it. You can then multiply the number of times you refill your glass or bottle by the amount of liquid it can hold.

Keep up with doctor visits and talk with a doctor about participating in cardiac rehabilitation. It’s a program that helps people with any number of heart conditions learn about exercise, diet, and other lifestyle strategies that can help protect the heart.

Heart failure is a serious health condition. But by managing some of the risk factors and working with a doctor to prevent or effectively treat any underlying problems, you may be able to dramatically reduce your risk factors for heart failure.