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By Marguerite Ward

February is often considered the month of love, with couples and family members sending heart emojis, heart-themed cards and heart-shaped chocolates. But what's a better gift to your loved ones than taking care of your heart?

February is American Heart Health Month. And while you might first think of it as routine campaign — it’s becoming more important than ever. Cardiovascular or heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and men, with obesity and diabetes, which increase a persons's risk of heart attack and stroke, on the rise.

While the statistics are alarming, don’t panic. Research shows that lifestyle changes can greatly reduce your risk. Here’s what you need to know:

What is American Heart Health Month?

It's a time to raise awareness about the serious dangers of heart disease and help people work to reduce their risk of heart attack, stroke and other related complications.

The American Heart Association promotes its wide array of resources and partnerships to provide people with tools to reduce high blood pressure, stress, help them eat better, exercise and other key changes.

Why American Heart Health Month is so important:

Heart disease is responsible for about one in every four deaths in the U.S., claiming the lives of more than half a million people each year. About 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack this year.

The numbers are scary, but the steps to reduce your risk are simple and clear.

How to reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attack:

The CDC outlines the top lifestyle changes to make to avoid heart complications. They include the following:

  • Quit smoking, this includes e-cigarettes
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet and avoid trans fats
  • Start moving
  • Treat your other health conditions, especially if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes

The main takeaway? A person’s lifestyle plays a huge role in increasing or reducing their risk, explained Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and a volunteer medical expert for American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women.

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“All of these different components are really what leads to heart disease. This is all driven by lifestyle. In my mind, that’s very empowering because you get to actually change the outcome of your life based on how you live daily,” said Steinbaum, who serves as a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

Lastly, know the signs of heart attack and stroke.

How to make healthy lifestyle changes:

“It’s always about baby steps. It’s never too late, let’s just start there. It’s never too late to start eating healthy, it’s never too late to start moving. But you certainly don’t start by running a marathon, you start by walking around the block,” she said.

  • 1. Start walking around the block daily.

Or find a low-impact, beginner workout video for free online. (Check out this guide.)

“We have become a truly sedentary culture and the risk of that is significant,” Steinbaum said. “We see that if people get up from their desks every hour, even for a few minutes, it decreases their risk. So I say to everyone, you don’t have to go the gym and go crazy, but you do have to get up and do something. And even walking shows benefits.”

In addition to physical benefits, aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging or biking is shown to increase cognition and brain function in adults of all ages.

  • 2. Eat whole foods and limit all sugary drinks.

This includes diet beverages, and while you're at it, steer clear of fried food and processed foods.

What does that mean on a day-to-day basis?

“If you look at a package and you can’t pronounce some of the words that are in the ingredients, don’t eat it. If there's a lot of chemicals, it’s processed and it’s not good,” Steinbaum said.

Eating vegetables gives your body vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Getty Images stock

Some healthy options? Consider steamed vegetables with lean protein such as chicken or fish, whole wheat pasta with vegetables, snacks such as nuts or an apple with peanut butter or almond butter that’s not heavily sweetened.

“Whole foods help in stabilizing sugar levels, decreasing cholesterol and blood pressure, they are really functionally helpful to us," Steinbaum explained.

  • 3. Reduce your stress.

There is an “enormous amount” of literature linking chronic psychological stress to heart disease, noted Joel Dimsdal, distinguished professor emeritus and research professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego.

In his analysis of scientific literature, he noted one study that found people who felt chronic or “permanent stress” at work or at home were more than two times more likely to develop a heart attack.

In addition, being depressed increases your risk, noted Steinbaum, as it raises your body’s level of inflammation.

“It needs to be managed whether through lifestyle, medication. Depression increases risk of heart disease four fold,” the cardiologist noted.

So what do you do about it, when you feel anxious or helpless? First and foremost, you can always call, text or chat with someone 24/7 to get immediate mental health support.

Secondly, consider seeing a professional counselor, therapist or even talking with your doctor. There are most likely affordable or free options in your community, or people who can point you to someone. In addition, consider adding meditation, exercise, prayer and more time with friends into your schedule.

“Heart health is not something to blow off,” Steinbaum said. “Again, it’s never too late.”