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Taking Steps Toward a Heart Healthy Lifestyle

It’s not just about Valentine’s Day anymore. The American Heart Association has announced that February is National American Heart Month. In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Every year, 1 in 4 deaths is caused by heart disease.

The good news is that heart disease can often be prevented when you make healthy choices and manage your health conditions. By making some simple changes in diet and lifestyle, you can begin taking steps toward better heart health.

The American Heart Association suggests that we can all play a part in preventing heart disease. By making healthy choices in our lifestyles, we can also spread the word about strategies for preventing heart disease and encourage people to live heart-healthy lives.

What is heart disease?

When people talk about heart disease, they are usually talking about coronary heart disease (CHD), which is also referred to as coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease.

When someone has CHD, the coronary arteries that take blood to the heart are narrow or blocked. This happens when cholesterol and fatty material called plaque buildup inside the arteries.

Plaque is caused by:

  • Too much fat and cholesterol in the blood

  • High blood pressure

  • Smoking

  • Too much sugar in the blood (diabetes)

When plaque blocks an artery, it’s hard for blood to flow to the heart. A blocked artery can cause chest pain or a heart attack.

Am I at risk for heart disease?

Everyone is at risk for heart disease. But you are at higher risk for heart disease if you:

  • Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure

  • Smoke

  • Are overweight or obese

  • Don't get enough physical activity

  • Don't eat a healthy diet

Your age and family history also affect your risk for heart disease. Your risk is higher if:

  • You are a woman over age 55

  • You are a man over age 45

  • Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55

  • Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65

Even if you may be at risk, there are some simple steps that you can take every day that will play an important role in developing better heart health.

Eat healthy.

Choosing healthy meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. A high fiber, low-sodium diet can also lower your blood pressure. Instead of using salt to flavor your food, try substituting herbs, spices, or salt-free seasoning blends instead. By limiting sugar in your diet, you can lower your blood sugar level to prevent or help control diabetes.

Get active.

Getting active can help prevent heart disease. Adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. This may include walking fast, dancing, or biking. If you are just getting started, try walking for 10 minutes a day, a few days a week. Then add more activity over time. Check out your local community center for physical activity classes that you can join. Combining a fun social encounter with exercise is a great way to keep your fitness program on track.

Stay at a healthy weight.

People who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are overweight or obese, losing just 10 pounds can lower your risk of heart disease.

Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.

Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Your doctor can suggest ways to help you quit.

Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.

High cholesterol and high blood pressure can cause heart disease and heart attack. If your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers are high, you can take steps to lower them.

Drink alcohol only in moderation.

If you choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation. This means limiting alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of heart disease.

Manage stress.

Managing stress can help prevent serious health problems like heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation are good ways to relax and manage stress.

Know your family’s health history.

Your family history affects your risk for heart disease. Keep track of your family’s health history and share the information with your doctor or nurse.

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