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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. In fact, about 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year, which equates to one in every four deaths.

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Fortunately, about 80 percent of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is preventable.

“There are many strategies to improving your heart’s health,” notes Cathy Reece, manager of Sentara Martha Jefferson Cardiac Rehab department. “It may not even require medication if you take steps to live a healthier lifestyle.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Of course, one of the most important things you can do to improve your heart health is to eat a healthy and balanced diet high in plant-based products. Some tried and true nutrition tips for eating well are:

  • Eat a diet high in fiber, including fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Read nutritional labels to avoid foods high in sodium, trans fat and hydrogenated oil
  • Switch to whole grain foods like oatmeal, brown rice, beans, and lentils
  • Meat sources should be lean and prepared with minimal added fat

Stop Smoking

Smoking is significant risk factor for heart disease. In fact, according to Reece, nicotine and tobacco use is one of the most important factors to address because nicotine will constrict arteries and reduce blood flow into those arteries in the heart.

“It also changes the inner lining of the heart blood vessels which increases the risk of plaque formation, which further restricts blood flow,” she adds. “The end result is that less blood gets where it needs to go and that increases the risk of a heart attack.”

When you quit smoking, within 3 months later, your blood flow gets better. One year later, your risk of heart disease is half that of someone who still smokes.

“No matter how long you have smoked, the benefits of quitting are going to be realized in improved health as well as an improved risk factor profile for many other diseases, such as pulmonary disease and some cancers,” explains Reece.

Get Some Sleep

You may not realize it, but getting a good night’s sleep can help to protect your heart. If you routinely are not getting quality sleep, you increase your risk for high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Experts say that sleep slows your heart rate and your blood pressure down, so you give your heart a break. Without quality sleep, you are not giving your heart that break, which can lead to an increased heart rate and increased blood pressure overall, both of which are associated with heart disease.

Reduce Stress

Stress is considered a major risk factor for many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, immune system disorders, and cognitive disorders like memory loss.

“The thing is that stress happens,” Reece points out. “Stress is a part of life, but when it tips into distress, it is creating a negative physiological change.”

The problem is that high levels of stress increase our levels of all disease risk. Stress contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, artery constriction and even plaque formation—all of which are risk factors for heart attack or heart disease.

“It’s important to understand that though stress is a part of life, distress does not have to be,” says Reece. “Part of that is understanding what are your triggers for distress? Can you avoid them? Can you delay them? Can you manage them differently? Developing an arsenal of coping mechanisms and stress management strategies are the best means of maintaining a stress reduced or stress free lifestyle.”

Take a Walk!

When it comes to your health, few things are as impactful as exercise.

“I always consider exercise the fountain of youth,” says Reece. “I read a study that said exercise impacts 47 different conditions, and there is no pill you can take or anything you can do that impacts as many different things in such a positive way in terms of our health.”

Reece ads that among the cardiac risk factors exercise can improve are your diabetes risk, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

“Finding an exercise program that works for you is going to be the most effective way of sticking to it. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking and getting out on a daily basis starting with 10 minutes a day, eventually moving to an exercise level that feels like it’s a slight challenge but not causing unusual shortness of breath, chest pain, or overall fatigue afterwards,” Reece adds. “Getting yourself moving is going to improve your overall heart health and lower your disease risk.”

February is Heart Month! For more heart healthy tips and recipes from Sentara, visit

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