Guard Your Heart – Be Heart Smart!

— Written By Christine Smith and last updated by Kim Davis

February is the month that we celebrate romantic thoughts of the heart with Valentine’s Day. February is also American Heart Month, a time to turn our thoughts to scientific matters of the heart.

According to the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update 2014, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the world and the leading cause of death in the United States, killing almost 380,000 Americans a year. The statistical update also referenced that heart disease strikes someone in the U.S. about once every 34 seconds, and is the No. 1 killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined.

Enough of the bad news – the good news is you can fight back against heart disease. You can become more heart smart. Both genders should heed this healthy advice: Don’t smoke, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise.

Start by practicing the three R’s: reduce, recognize, and respond.

REDUCE your risk by improving your lifestyle with these steps:

Get your cholesterol checked. A total blood cholesterol level of less than 200 is desirable. A level of 240 or higher is considered high blood cholesterol. But, even a level between 200 and 240 can increase your risk of heart disease. If you don’t know your number, ask your doctor about it.

The risk of heart disease rises as blood cholesterol levels increase. To minimize your risk, eat a healthy diet that includes foods low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low fat milk products.

Control your blood pressure.   Desirable blood pressure is 120/80.

If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, you have high blood pressure (aka hypertension). High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload causing the heart to enlarge and weaken over time. If you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to control it. Eating a proper diet, losing weight, exercising regularly, restricting sodium intake, and following a program of medication may all be prescribed to lower blood pressure and keep it within healthy limits.

Stop smoking.  Smoking greatly increases your heart disease risk. When you quit smoking, within three years your risk of heart disease will be about the same as if you never smoked.

Stay physically active.  Walking briskly 3 or 4 times a week for just 30 minutes can help condition your heart, control your blood pressure, and increase your HDL- your “good” cholesterol. Even being active for 10 minutes 3 times a day brings benefits.

Get regular medical checkups.  Be sure to follow your doctor’s advice. If you need medication to control your blood pressure, cholesterol, or for other conditions, take it exactly as prescribed.

RECOGNIZE a heart attack. The symptoms of a heart attack vary, but the usual warning signs are:  Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes; pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms; chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.

RESPOND to a heart attack. If you notice one or more of these signs, don’t wait. Get medical help fast! Call 911. It’s important to realize that not all of these signs occur with every heart attack. In some cases, the symptoms subside and then return.

For information about the types of dietary fat and how to reduce fat, cholesterol, and sodium in your diet, call me at 731-1525. Remember that your lifestyle is your best defense against a heart attack. Enjoy being with your Valentine this month and make a commitment to yourself to take care of your heart by following the 3 R’s – REDUCE, RECOGNIZE, and RESPOND. This month give your heart the attention it deserves. Eat smart and move more!

Thought to ponder:

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. ~ Nelson Mandela

Christine Smith is an Extension Agent in the department of Family & Consumer Sciences with N.C. Cooperative Extension, NCSU,Wayne County. Information on other services available can be found online at or call me at 731-1525 for additional information.