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Fighting for a Healthy Heart: Donning the weapons to combat heart disease

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Healthy Heart

You owe it all to your heart.

Your heart is the center of your cardiovascular system, meaning it's responsible for just about everything that gives your body life. You may be thinking, "I already know that!" But unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 18 percent of adults in the United States have ideal levels of heart or cardiovascular health.

Heart disease, taking 600,000 lives per year, is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. - but even more shocking than that statistic is the fact that heart disease is preventable and controllable.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease refers to several different kinds of heart conditions. The most common is coronary heart disease.

"Coronary heart disease is a simple term used to describe several problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries," says the American Heart Association. "As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke."

The other most common types of heart disease are an irregular heartbeat, heart valve problems or heart failure. Heart disease significantly increases your risk for heart attack or stroke.

Prevention Plan

While it's hard to believe that the No. 1 cause of death is preventable, it's actually good news because that means that every move you make to treat your body better is also a step in the direction of preventing heart disease.

Eat a heart-healthy diet

While it's tough to change eating habits, it's much more manageable when you have a plan. You don't have to cut out all the bad foods you love to eat, you just have to learn how to eat them in moderation.

"If overindulgence is the exception, rather than the rule, you'll balance things out over the long term," says the Mayo Clinic. "What's important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time."

Start by knowing how many calories you can eat each day to either maintain or lose weight. From there, plan to eat nutritious foods from all the food groups. Try to ensure that your daily food choices include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy products. Make sure you limit the intake of sugary foods and beverages and red meat.

If you're unsure on what calorie intake to start with or need more guidelines and help with meal preparation, visit the AHA's website at

Exercise regularly

According to the 2013 National Health Interview Survey, only half of American adults are actually meeting the guidelines associated with physical activity. But, according to a study done by the AHA and the CDC, Americans significantly overestimate their physical activity when self-reporting - indicating that only about one-fourth of Americans are getting the exercise that they need.

The Surgeon General recommends that adults engage in moderate-intensity exercise for at least two and a half hours each week. This regular exercise can help you lower your cholesterol and blood pressure - plus, it can help you maintain a healthy weight. If you're overweight, you can lower your risk of heart disease by losing even 10 percent of your current weight.

Even if you can't reach the time recommendation on exercise, something is always better than nothing - get moving!

Don't smoke

Even though cigarette use has declined from 24 percent in 1998, 18 percent of Americans were still smoking at the end of 2013. Smokers have higher risks of developing a lot of chronic diseases, some of which lead to coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. In fact, the risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to four times higher for smokers than nonsmokers.

While smoking alone increases the risk of heart disease, when combined with other risks factors, it makes smokers even more susceptible.

While it might not be an easy task, with the help of your doctor, you can develop a plan to quit.

Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol

Both your blood pressure and cholesterol need to be checked consistently. While you only need to ask your doctor to check your cholesterol levels every five years, be sure to check your blood pressure more frequently - whether at home or at the pharmacy.

High blood pressure makes your heart work significantly harder, which makes the heart muscle thicken, becoming stiffer. When this happens, it increases your risk of stroke, kidney failure, heart attack and congestive heart failure.

When the blood cholesterol rises, it adds to your risk of coronary heart disease.

Be sure to check with your doctor on what both your cholesterol and blood pressure levels should be. Both high blood pressure and cholesterol can be naturally lowered by losing weight, eating healthy and exercising regularly.

Manage your diabetes

Having diabetes increases your risk of heart disease because most risk factors on this list are also associated with diabetes. While it's important to manage and control all aspects of diabetes, it's especially important to control your blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar level is too high it can increase your risk for heart disease. Follow your doctor's plan for managing all the risk factors associated with heart disease.

Limit alcohol use and stress

Drinking too much can increase your blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease. See the CDC's recommendations for advised limits on alcohol intake.

Some scientists have found that there's a relationship between a person's stress and risk of coronary heart disease.

"For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would," reveals the CDC.

Alcohol use and stress levels are something that you can easily monitor, decreasing your risk of heart disease.

There are a variety of risk factors that can't be changed, such as age. People aged 65 years and older are most at risk for heart disease. Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women themselves and children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop the disease. If your risk is high because of one of these reasons, you should work even harder to manage the other risk factors previously mentioned.

Heart disease isn't just a problem for adults. If you're a parent, start instilling habits in your children's lives now for a healthy heart.

You are fully equipped with the weapons to win against heart disease - so start fighting now! Your heart deserves it.

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