What Causes Heart Failure?

All of us lose some blood-pumping ability in our hearts as we age, but heart failure results from the added stress of health conditions that either damage the heart or make it work too hard. Certain lifestyle factors – smoking, being overweight, eating foods high in fat and cholesterol and physical inactivity – can contribute to heart failure because they increase your risk of developing heart conditions associated with heart failure.

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your risk for heart failure by making lifestyle changes that last.

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Conditions that might lead to heart failure

If you have heart failure, chances are you have (or had) one or more of the conditions listed below. And, if you have any of the following, you are at higher risk of developing heart failure.

Typically, these conditions cause the "wear and tear" that leads to heart failure. Having more than one of these factors dramatically increases your risk. Some of these conditions can be present without your knowing it. Be sure to talk to your health care professional about tests you can do to decipher whether you have any of these conditions.

Past heart attack (myocardial infarction)

A heart attack occurs when an artery that supplies blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked. The loss of oxygen and nutrients carried by the blood damages the heart’s muscle tissue. The damaged heart tissue doesn’t contract as well, which weakens the heart’s ability to pump blood.

Learn more about heart attacks

Abnormal heart valves

Heart valve problems can result from disease, infection (endocarditis) or a defect present at birth. When the valves don't open or close completely during each heartbeat, the heart muscle has to pump harder to keep the blood moving. If the workload becomes too great, heart failure results.

Learn more about heart valves

Heart muscle disease (dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) or inflammation (myocarditis)

Any damage to the heart muscle – whether because of drug or alcohol use, viral or other infections or unknown reasons – increases the risk of heart failure. 

Learn more about cardiomyopathy

Heart defects present at birth (congenital heart defects)

If the heart and its chambers don't form correctly, the healthy parts have to work harder to make up for it. Just like with abnormal heart valves, whenever parts of the heart have to work harder to make up for parts that are not functioning properly, heart failure results. 

Learn more about congenital heart defects

Other conditions

Less commonly, an otherwise healthy heart may become temporarily unable to keep up with the body's needs. This can happen in people who have:

  • Low red blood cell count (severe anemia): When there aren't enough red blood cells to carry oxygen, the heart tries to move the small number of cells at a faster heart rate. It can become overtaxed from the effort.
  • An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism): This condition causes the body to work at a faster pace, and the heart can be overworked trying to keep up.
  • Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia or dysrhythmia): When the heart beats too fast, too slow or irregularly, it may not be able to pump enough blood to meet all the body's needs. Learn more about arrhythmia.

In these cases, the person may experience heart failure symptoms until the underlying problem is identified and treated.

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