Although we recognize February as American Heart Month, we need to take care of our hearts year round. Cardiovascular disease – including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure – is the leading cause of death in the United States. It is also a leading cause of disability, preventing many Americans from working and enjoying family activities.

It is never too late to tackle your heart risk factors. It is also never too early since heart disease can begin in childhood. We are all different, so it is important to improve our health habits, partner with a health care provider, and develop an individual plan that works best for us.

While certain risk factors, like getting older or having a family history of heart disease, cannot be changed, each of us does have the power to control a variety of factors that can reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and stroke.

CHOLESTEROL AND BLOOD PRESSURE

Your health care provider can measure your blood cholesterol with a simple blood test, take your blood pressure, and determine if your weight is in the healthy range. It helps to know your numbers if you are going to tackle your heart risk factors. These are basic, but important things to monitor to be sure you are on the right path to ongoing good health. Controlling high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure significantly reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke, according to heart disease specialists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Diet modifications and exercise may reduce these risk factors, or your doctor may recommend prescription medications.

WEIGHT AND DIET

These may sound like simple things to control but they present some of the biggest challenges to your health. Obesity is an overwhelming problem in this country. Fortunately, even a small weight loss, if you are overweight, can help lower your risk for heart attack or stroke. A heart-healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and fat-free or low fat dairy products. Try to avoid foods with saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar.

EXERCISE

Don’t forget to include exercise with that heart-healthy diet. The NIH recommends at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. However, as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise can protect your heart. Use a variety of exercises so that you don’t get bored. Try a brisk walk, running, swimming, or dancing. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator will give your heart a good workout and make a difference.

KICK THE HABIT

Finally, if you are a smoker...quit today! It is hard on the heart. Cigarette smoking is directly linked to 30 percent of all heart disease deaths in the United States each year. It’s not easy and not everyone can kick the habit the same way. Ask your health care provider for help. Heart disease knows no boundaries. In the United States alone, it claims the lives of more than 2,000 Americans each day. That’s an average of one death every 40 seconds. By taking positive, proactive steps today to adjust and modify bad behaviors which lead to increased risk, we can begin to turn those statistics around.

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