This article appears in the Health Living fall 2017 magazine.

As the years go by, for many people the number on the scale tends to creep up. Even though this is pretty common, a new study finds that gaining even a little bit of weight may increase the risk of heart failure.

Heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body. It is a serious condition, but it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating. Heart failure affects about 5.7 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of people who develop heart failure die within five years of diagnosis.

Putting on a few pounds over the years affects the structure of the heart and its ability to pump blood, said Dr. Ian Neeland, the study’s senior author and a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

“Small fluctuations up or down — even as little as 5 percent — affect the way the heart functions and how much blood the heart can accommodate,” Neeland said. A small weight gain can lead to a remodeling of the heart, “thickening and enlarging the left side, a well-established indicator of future heart failure,” Neeland said.

Five percent of body weight is the equivalent of a 6 ½-pound gain for a 130-pound woman or 7 1/2 pounds for a 150-pound man.

These changes in heart muscle appearance and function persisted even after the researchers eliminated other factors that could affect heart muscle performance and appearance, including high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and alcohol use.

About the study

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, followed 1,262 adults (average age 44, 57 percent women, 44 percent black, 36 percent obese) who were free from heart disease and other conditions that put them at high risk for heart disease for seven years. Participants had MRI scans of their hearts and multiple body fat measurements at the start of the study and then seven years later. After seven years, 41 percent gained weight, 15 percent lost weight and the others remained stable.

How much a person weighed at the beginning of the study didn’t impact the changes, suggesting that even those of normal weight could experience adverse heart effects if they gain weight over time.

The researchers caution that the study was relatively small and their findings do not mean that every person with weight gain will necessarily develop heart failure.

Conversely, people who lost weight decreased the thickness of the heart muscle, Neeland said.

“It’s hard to lose weight,” and people who can’t should focus on “weight stability,” Neeland said.

“Counseling to maintain weight stability, even in the absence of weight loss, may be an important preventive strategy among high-risk individuals,” he said.

What to change now

Body-mass index is a “crude measurement” for proper weight, Neeland said. Instead, look at your weight-over-height ratio, which is determined by dividing your waist circumference by your height in inches.

Two studies in the United Kingdom this year also advised keeping “your waist to less than half your height.” That means someone who is 5 foot 5 (65 inches) — about the height of the average U.S. woman — should maintain a waistline smaller than 33 inches, and a person who is 6 feet tall (72 inches) should keep his or her waist to less than 36 inches.

In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, tips to decrease your risk of heart failure include being physically active. Try to get 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity each week, which could include walking or biking, Neeland said.

Follow a heart-healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Visit your doctor to be appropriately screened for blood pressure and cholesterol levels.