Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Know your risks and act accordingly.

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February is Heart Health Month and a great time of year to ensure you and your loved ones are living a heart-healthy lifestyle. With heart disease being the number one leading cause of death in the United States, knowing the risk factors and preventive measures can significantly reduce your risk.

The Risks

When I see patients, I always stress the importance of knowing the risk factors of heart disease. Some risk factors are inherited, while others can be managed through lifestyle changes.

Knowing your family history is important. If you have a first-degree relative with premature coronary artery disease — defined as younger than 55 years old in men and younger than 65 years old in women — your risk is higher. Even if your family has a clean bill of health, other genetic factors can increase your risk as well. For example, African Americans and Hispanics face higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. The risk for heart disease increases at age 45 for men and 55 for women. No matter what, you should always share your family history with your doctor.

Two of the strongest risk factors for cardiovascular disease are diabetes and smoking. Diabetics are two to four times more likely to have cardiovascular disease, and smoking can double or even quadruple one’s risk.

Other risk factors include hypertension, abnormal lipid levels, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. In women, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced hypertension are early indicators. Autoimmune diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis are lesser-known factors associated with heart disease. To take care of these, I recommend patients check their cholesterol, body mass index, blood pressure and smoking status/history, and monitor for diabetes. These are some of the most common risks, and if addressed, you can dramatically reduce your chances of developing heart disease.

Cutting bad habits

Simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in improving your heart health. If you’re a smoker, it’s best to try to quit. Smoking as few as one to four cigarettes a day can double your risk for cardiovascular disease.

I also recommend that patients try avoiding foods high in salt, saturated fat, starches, simple sugars and refined carbohydrates. Sodium consumption should be kept to less than 2000 mg (about a teaspoon) per day if you have high blood pressure or heart failure.

Maintaining heart health

Eating a healthful diet will help you maintain good heart health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Incorporate foods that provide key vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids such as nuts, lean proteins, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Drinking more water and avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages are also beneficial.

You can also reduce the risk of heart disease and improve your numbers by exercising for at least 30 minutes per day five times a week. Getting active can take many forms, including walking, jogging, swimming or biking. Regardless of the method of exercise, be sure to consult with your physician before starting a new exercise program. If you develop significant shortness of breath, chest discomfort, dizziness or palpitations when you exercise, this may be a sign you have heart troubles. In that case, stop exercising and seek medical attention.

Taking steps to improve your health is easy to put off, but it will bring you huge benefits in the long run. If you don’t know where to start, make an appointment with your doctor who can help you take control of your heart health.