Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of illness and death for North American women and kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. February is Women’s Heart Health Month, and it is a great time for women to start taking better care of their hearts all year round.

It’s important to know your personal risk for heart disease and family history. Common risk factors for heart disease include elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle and overweight or obesity.

Obesity increases women’s risk for at least five leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and some types of cancer.

Two of the best ways to improve your heart health is to change your diet and to exercise.

You have many different options to change your diet for the better. Most of them include incorporating more vegetables and fruits and fiber sources into your diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate encourages people to fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables. Fiber not only helps prevent heart disease but also can help prevent diabetes, manage weight and improve digestion. Good sources of fiber are beans, barley and oats.

You can also start incorporating more Mediterranean meals into your diet. People in Mediterranean countries tend to have lower rates of heart disease because they eat a diet rich in monounsaturated fat and linolenic acid. They consume more olive oil, fish, fruits and vegetables. More whole foods, less processed foods. More plant based proteins, less animal based proteins.

High blood pressure can be a major contributing factor to heart disease and arteriosclerosis. If you have high blood pressure, learning to control it can greatly reduce your risk of developing heart disease. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet has been proven to significantly lower blood pressure. This diet involves limiting your salt intake and consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, fiber and lean meats. More information about the DASH diet is available on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s website, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash/followdash.html.

More than two-thirds of Kentuckians are not active, and 71 percent of women in the state report being sedentary. You can become more heart healthy by incorporating more movement into your day. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend hours at the gym. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you can start small by doing things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away from a store entrance, playing tag with your kids or walking around your neighborhood. Every bit of movement helps.

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