Living a full and healthy life with heart failure is possible. With simple lifestyle changes, the power to live a heart-healthy life is in your hands.
About 6.2 million adults in the United States live with heart failure, according to the CDC. It may develop as a result of a range of heart conditions that impact the heart’s ability to pump sufficient blood and oxygen throughout the body.
How to live a heart-healthy lifestyle
Before we dive into lifestyle changes, it’s important to know some of the risk factors of heart failure.
Smoking tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity and eating a diet that is high in fat, cholesterol and sodium all increase the risk of suffering from this condition. Diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure and obesity are also contributing factors.
Symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, fatigue, increased heart rate, lack of appetite, nausea, swelling or weight gain and impaired thinking.
Now that we’re familiar with the risk factors and signs of heart failure, let’s get into the lifestyle changes that can help you enjoy a healthy life despite your diagnosis. While there is no cure for heart failure, there are a number of ways it can be managed.
1. Follow your medication plan
There are a number of heart failure medications that can improve a patient’s quality of life, including beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors and sacubitril-valsartan. Follow your medication regimen as instructed by your doctor. This is just one essential component of your new heart-healthy lifestyle.
2. Eat a heart-healthy diet
A well-balanced diet is key to maintaining good health despite heart failure. It is important to limit sodium in the food you eat, as too much sodium can negatively affect blood pressure. Limit saturated fat and cholesterol, which are high in processed food and animal protein (opt for lean cuts instead). Heart-healthy foods include plant-based protein sources (beans, lentils and split peas), fruits and vegetables, whole grain starches (rice, bread and pasta) and healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, olives and certain types of fish).
3. Get regular exercise
Staying active can make your heart stronger. Aerobic exercise like walking is beneficial to heart health. Regular exercise can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve sleep and give you more energy. It’s normal to feel shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate; take a break and resume when you’re ready. At the end of your routine, do a cool-down exercise to allow your heart rate and breathing to return to normal. Speak with your doctor or nurse before starting an exercise program.
4. Monitor your symptoms
It’s important to be aware of any new symptoms that may arise. New or worsening heart failure symptoms may include increased shortness of breath, changes in heartbeat, swelling in the legs or stomach, unexplained change in weight, and poor appetite, nausea or vomiting. Call your doctor as soon as you notice these new or worsening symptoms.
5. Lean on your support system
Living with heart failure can involve a lot—maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, staying on top of your medication regimen, side effects, doctor visits and more. Support comes in many forms, such as emotional, financial, informational, and companionship. If you don’t have access to a support system, there are opportunities to find your own. Black Men Run and Black Girls Run are examples of communities united by a desire to stay active and promote a healthy lifestyle.
It’s important to note that Black patients are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes and hypertension, and further, are associated with worse outcomes than their white counterparts due to structural health inequities.
According to a study published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure, “important disparities in heart failure outcomes persist based on race/ethnicity,” including heart failure death and hospitalization rates.
“Both structural and social inequities, which cause increased stress and distrust in the medical system, a lack of nutritious food options (living in food deserts), and poor access to medical care have a direct link to the development of heart disease and heart failure,” according to advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist at UChicago Medicine, Dr. Bryan Smith.
Cardiologists like Dr. Smith and Dr. Michelle Albert, president of the American Heart Association, are amplifying this important conversation, shedding light on healthcare disparities and exploring opportunities for improved treatment and prevention.