February is Heart Health month, which is an opportunity to raise awareness about the prevalence of heart disease-the top two killers in the world are linked to heart and blood vessel problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease annually in the United States alone with 380,000 of those deaths attributed to coronary artery disease.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke in include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking.

In most cases, the progression of heart disease is preventable by engaging in lifestyle changes, in addition to any pertinent medication your doctor may prescribe.

Smoking damages blood vessels, and studies show smokers are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as non-smokers.

If you smoke, quit immediately! Even secondhand smoke can increase the risk of heart attack by 30 percent.

The liver produces cholesterol, a fatty substance which coats cells to protect them. While designed to protect the body, too much cholesterol obtained through the diet can be deposited in arteries which builds a wall of plaque inside the blood vessels.

Cholesterol-rich foods such as meat, butter, whole milk, cheese and eggs should be eaten in moderation while increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the diet to keep the arteries clean of plaque.

Blood pressure is the force exerted by the heart in pumping blood and high blood pressure is a warning the heart is working harder than normal.

High blood pressure may not cause symptoms; however it is a major cause of heart and blood vessel disease. Following a low-salt diet and controlling weight can help keep blood pressure in check.

Studies show active people will be less likely to die from a heart attack. Moderate physical activity, about 30-60 minutes on most days of the week, can be enough to keep the heart fit and pumping strong.

Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices. Take the necessary steps right now to keep your heart healthy and strong.

Carey Stites is a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor and a Registered Dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition. Carey is currently the Registered Dietitian working with Wellstone in Harker Heights. Contact her at carey.stites@smchh.org.

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