Friday we celebrated Valentine’s Day. When we think of love, we think about the heart. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women? Did you also know that it is preventable and controllable?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. Additionally, about 600,000 people die from heart disease, which equates to one out of every four deaths in the United States each year.

The term “heart disease” actually refers to several different heart conditions. The most common condition is coronary heart disease, or coronary artery disease. This occurs when there is a buildup of plaque in the arteries which are working to supply blood to the heart. In turn, this can lead to heart attack, heart failure, chest pain and an irregular heart rate.

There are a few major symptoms of a heart attack of which to be aware. However, it’s important to note that heart attack symptoms may feel different for men and women.

Some signs to watch out for are pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back; feeling weak, light-headed or faint; chest pain or discomfort; pain or discomfort in the arms, back or shoulder; shortness of breath; fatigue; or unusual GI symptoms such as nausea, abdominal discomfort, vomiting or an upset stomach. If you think that you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Knowing that heart disease is preventable and controllable can be a big relief. Little changes made day-to-day can lead to life-long changes that can improve your heart health.

• Eat a healthy diet. Choosing healthy meals and snacks can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables; eat foods low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol; eat foods high in fiber; and limit salt or sodium in your diet.

• Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease.

• Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The Surgeon General recommends that adults should engage in moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

• Monitor your blood pressure. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, so be sure to have it checked on a regular basis. You can check your blood pressure at home, at a pharmacy or at a doctor's office.

• Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quit as soon as possible.

• Limit alcohol use. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure. Men should stick to no more than two drinks per day, and women to no more than one.

• Have your cholesterol checked. Your health care provider should test your cholesterol levels at least once every five years. Talk with your doctor about this simple blood test.

• Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels closely, and talk with your doctor about treatment options.

• Take your medicine. If you're taking medication to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Always ask questions if you don't understand something.

The thought of making all of these changes might seem a little unbearable at first. However, here are a few tips to make the changes go smoothly. Try not to become overwhelmed. Remember, every little step you can take brings you closer to a healthier heart.

Find a buddy. Making changes with someone else is a lot easier and a lot more fun than by yourself. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. You may not be able to change everything at once, so just take a deep breath and do whatever you are able to do. Make sure to find time for fun. Reward yourself in little ways when you reach goals or start to make changes.

Information from:

Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.