Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, kills more than half a million Americans every year. Those deaths make up 1 in every 4 deaths in the US and cost the country approximately $108.9 billion annually. Thanks to certain lifestyle behaviors, heart disease is on the rise in the United States, but we have the power to significantly reduce its prevalence.

According to a recent CDC report, 200,000 deaths from heart attack or stroke can be avoided each year by changing our lifestyle and daily behaviors. By ignoring these potentially life saving habit changes, we put our health in danger. Consider these six tips to help improve your heart health.

1) Quit smoking – It may seem like the most obvious step, but according to the American Cancer Society, more than 43.8 million adults in the United States, about 19% of the adult population, still smoke cigarettes, despite the health warnings. Smoking is one of the key risk factors for heart disease, because it increases blood pressure and decreases good cholesterol, or HDL. Smoking also causes fatty buildup in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis, which leads to heart disease and heart attacks. In order to fully quit, many people initially switch to a nicotine patch, nicotine gum, or a spray. It’s not always easy, but quitting smoking will help you will save money, time, and increase your chances of a longer, healthier life.
2) Go for a walk – When people think about exercise, they often think about a rigorous workout at the gym, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Walking also counts as exercise and is great for lowering blood pressure, losing and maintaining weight, and improving blood flow. Improved blood flow, along with a healthy weight and low blood pressure reduce the risk of heart disease. Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of exercise a day during 5 days of the week.
3) Limit saturated fat and cholesterol – Tailor your diet to a heart healthy diet, which might mean removing some items. Avoid or keep consumption to a minimum of processed meats, red meat, and other animal products like dairy that are high in both saturated fat and cholesterol. Sugary processed foods, which are often full of trans fats, are also best left off your plate. Keeping your cholesterol levels low and stable will help you reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
4) Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables – A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is one of the best gifts of health you can give yourself. Full of beneficial vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables are also low in calories but high in fiber, making them an ideal food that prevents weight gain, reduces cholesterol, and improves heart health. Try to eat as many raw fruits and vegetables in their whole form, as opposed to those canned in syrup or salt, heavily cooked, or fried.
5) Get the flu shot – A study about long term health released this year found that in individuals who have already had a heart attack, the flu shot reduces the risk of another heart attack or stroke by 50%. The impact continues to last long after the shot has been given, though scientists aren’t quite sure why. Whether it is because the flu and its symptoms place an abnormal strain on the heart or not, it has been made clear that if you already suffer from heart disease and have experienced a heart attack, the flu shot will reduce your risk of another one.
6) Know the early indicators – Recognizing the signs of heart disease is just as important as understanding the causes. According to the CDC, 92% of individuals recognized chest pain as a symptom of heart attack, but only 27% of people were aware of all the major symptoms and knew to call 9-1-1. The major symptoms include chest pain or discomfort, upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach, shortness of breath, and nausea, lightheadedness, or cold sweats. Being aware of the major symptoms may help you or a loved one avoid disaster in the future.

Every year, about 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack. Understanding the different ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your overall heart health will help ensure you have a healthy heart into retirement and old age. Remaining aware of the risk factors and behaviors will keep you free to actively engage in both your own life and the lives of your loved ones.