It’s February, aka American Heart Month, a time when everyone should stop and consider the state of their own health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, indeed the world, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many ways to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, a catch-all term for conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels.

The heart is a work horse, beating 2.5 billion times over the course of an average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body and fueling essential bodily functions. The usual culprits hampering its ability to perform are a poor diet and lack of exercise compounded by bad habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Family history also plays a role.

Adhering to a healthy lifestyle, especially from a young age, is the ideal route to preventing cardiovascular disease. “If a genetic component exists, people should start to assess their lives fairly early on,” says Dr. Evangelos Diamantakos, an internal medicine specialist at Eisenhower Health in Rancho Mirage. At the very least, an annual checkup with a primary care physician is recommended and if heart disease runs in the family, a visit to a specialist may be in order.

Family history or not, the real truth is older individuals face a higher risk of developing heart disease than younger ones. So, forget youthful indiscretions. “From at least the age of 40 onwards, there should be a continued mindset of living a healthy life,” Diamantakos says. The principles of a heart heathy diet provided courtesy of the American Heart Association (AHA): heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating are a good point of reference as are the guidelines for engaging in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity at least five days a week: heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness.

Countering the good habits to abide by are bad behaviors to avoid — or at least practice in moderation. In the Coachella Valley, the perilous habit of smoking is less prevalent than in other locales, according to Diamantakos. “Here, alcohol tends to be the big thing. Our population enjoys their nightcaps and so, for men, the recommendation is usually less than two drinks per day and for women, less than one drink per day.” Exceed those limits and over time, the heart muscle will weaken leading to a condition known as cardiomyopathy.

Proactive measures aside, chances are anyone under the care of a cardiologist has already experienced a heart related episode.

“Interestingly, the same principles of diet modification and exercise apply, perhaps even more so, during treatment,” says Dr. Andrew D. Frutkin, an interventional cardiologist at Eisenhower Health. “The principles for prevention and management are pretty similar although we may be more assertive in using medications as part of the therapy for controlling cardiovascular risk.”

As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and individuals who keep tabs on their blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol and blood sugar levels with help from their doctor are one step closer to maintaining heart health. The American Heart Association “Know Your Numbers” campaign (heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/prevention–treatment-of-diabetes/know-your-health-numbers) encourages people to become familiar with their “numbers” as these digits are key indicators of their risk for serious cardiovascular health issues.

In addition to the obvious, there are more insidious ways heart disease can make inroads. “Sleep apnea is an often under diagnosed condition that can lead to significant cardiac issues, heart rhythm problems, uncontrolled blood pressure and weight gain,” Diamantakos says. “If you’re tired because apnea is robbing you of sleep, then you’re not going to have energy to want to be out and active.”

Studies have also shown deteriorating oral health leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Lifestyle changes and pro-active measures can nip heart-harming trends in the bud. Why not take a cue during American Heart Month?

Heart Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Get a move on
Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week.

Eat a nutritious diet
Learn what constitutes heart healthy food choices and make them.

Quit smoking
No ifs, ands, or butts.

Limit alcohol consumption
1 to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink for women tops.

Maintain a healthy weight
Circle back to exercise and diet tips.

Minimize stress
Find a stress-relieving activity that works and practice it daily.

Get enough sleep
Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep nightly.

Track your heart health stats
Reference the AHA’s “Know Your Numbers” campaign.