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Here’s a statistic that’s worrisome enough to make your heart skip a beat: heart disease is the major killer of Americans. It causes more than one out of every four deaths in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cardiovascular disease is also a major cause of disability.

While there are many forms of heart disease, the most common is coronary artery disease (CAD). It involves plaque building up slowly and causing coronary arteries (the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart) to narrow and even become blocked, leading to heart attacks.

But take heart.

CAD doesn’t strike out of the blue and your arteries don’t clog up overnight. Cardiologist and researcher Laurence Sperling, MD, founder and medical director of Preventive Cardiology at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta, points out you can go a long way to improve and protect your cardiovascular health by learning to make heart healthy lifestyle choices.

The importance of TLC

"Although a strong family history of heart disease and increasing age are heart disease risk factors you can’t change, you can take control of a host of other risk factors established by landmark epidemiological investigations, including the Framingham Heart Study. These include: high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, dietary factors (particularly dietary cholesterol, fat, and sodium), obesity, and physical inactivity," Dr. Sperling, MD, director of Emory’s Center for Heart Disease Prevention, tells Synergy.

The key, he explains, is to take action with what he calls Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC).

"TLC involves consciously making healthy choices and actively participating in taking control of your heart health. There are three steps to achieving cardiovascular risk reduction through TLC, knowledge, behavioral change, and maintenance of behavioral change," says Dr. Sperling.

Bottom line: although some high risk patients should begin medical therapy (such as medication to lower high blood pressure) and lifestyle changes simultaneously, implementing TLC is a powerful way for everyone to lower the odds of becoming a heart disease statistic.

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A dozen ways to protect and improve cardiovascular health:

1. Get moving

The American Heart Association (AHA) lists physical inactivity as one of the top risk factors for developing CAD. Forget the excuses about not having time to go to the gym. Even moderately intense physical activity like brisk walking when done regularly for about half an hour most days of the week can help lower your heart disease risk – it can reduce blood pressure and control weight and cholesterol levels, too. (If you have had a heart event or known cardiovascular disease, are over 50, or have other risk factors for heart disease, always be checked out by your physician before starting a new exercise program.)

2. Lose the spare tire

Being overweight is a serious risk factor for heart disease, especially extra weight around the middle. A man’s waist, measured at or just above the belly button, should be less than 40 inches and a female’s less than 35. If it’s more than that, you’ve got too much abdominal fat. Forget fad diets and concentrate on fresh fruits, veggies, and complex whole grains to lose the weight.

3. Don’t ignore stress

Stress causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. When chronic, these changes may damage artery walls. Self-relaxation techniques, yoga, and exercise can help.

4. Avoid smoke

Don’t smoke – at all. That includes a cigarette just once in a while. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found that even an occasional cigarette raises your risk for health disease. Even secondhand smoke is bad for your heart.

5. Know your numbers

Talk to your doctor at your next physical and get the facts on your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood glucose. Work with your physician to incorporate TLC and medication, if needed, to improve those numbers and lower your risk of heart disease.

6. For your heart’s sake, floss

Studies have shown that oral health can have an impact on heart health. It turns out that inflammation in the mouth from poor oral hygiene can cause bacteria to enter the bloodstream and contribute to heart disease. So floss daily and see your dentist regularly.

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7. Think five-a-day

Yale researchers have found that eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily can lower blood pressure by an average of 11 points and slash the risk of a heart attack and stroke. Helpful hint: try adding eight ounces of veggie juice at lunch and dinner to increase your veggie quota.

8. Get a good night’s sleep

Cornell researchers say not getting enough sleep (around seven hours a night) raises your risk of a host of health problems, including heart disease. If you snore and wake up tired, you could have sleep apnea, a potentially serious problem upping the risk of heart attack and stroke. So never ignore ongoing sleep problems. If self-help methods like avoiding late-in-the-day caffeine and exercising more don’t work, talk to your doctor.

9. Get your omega-3s

Numerous studies show omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish like salmon, mackerel and trout) in the diet can play a role in preventing heart disease. Just make sure you grill or bake your fish, instead of frying. The AHA recommends eating omega-3 rich fish at least two times a week. Walnuts are a rich plant source of these "good" fats, too.

10. Consider a glass of wine a day

A glass of wine with dinner may improve "good" HDL cholesterol levels and help protect your health. If you can’t drink in moderation, though, this tip is not for you. Consider adding a glass of grape juice or some dark chocolate to your diet instead – both have the phytochemical resveratrol that may have the same benefits as wine.

11. Vitamin D’s heart connection

Over the past few years, research has shown that many Americans have low levels of vitamin D and a lack of this essential vitamin has been linked to a variety of health problems, including an elevated risk of heart disease. Consider asking your doctor to check your vitamin D level at your next visit.

12. Eat the Mediterranean way

Here’s delicious news, the Mediterranean style of eating can help you lose weight and lower your heart disease risk. It incorporates an abundance of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and cereals); minimally processed, seasonally fresh foods; desserts comprised of fresh fruit with only occasional desserts with refined sugar or honey; olive oil; low to moderate amounts of dairy products; up to four eggs a week; red meat, rarely; and wine in low to moderate amounts.

"There is consistent clinical trial and basic science evidence showing the Mediterranean diet has cardio-protective effects," Dr. Sperling tells Synergy.

FS Author Sherry Baker

Sherry Baker is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She last wrote the article on Avoiding Obstacles Preventing from Dropping Excess Pounds for Synergy. Sherry can be reached at featuredstories@adamcorp.com