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February is American Heart Month, which is the perfect time to raise awareness about heart disease.

Keep in mind that prevention is the best medicine. While heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, there is good news on the horizon.

“The number of seniors afflicted with heart conditions decreased markedly during the last decade,” said Betsy Mullen, RN, MS, LNHA, Chief Operating Officer at Chelsea Jewish Lifecare. “Moreover, there are strategies and modifications you can incorporate into your life that will help to prevent heart disease.”

According to the American Heart Association, “a lack of commitment to a heart healthy lifestyle” is the biggest factor in heart disease. But that can be easily remedied with moderate lifestyle changes. When you consider the fact that a heart-healthy lifestyle can reduce modifiable risk factors for heart disease, it makes sense to embrace healthy eating and exercise habits.

In honor of National Heart Month, why not make a promise to focus on your heart by adopting a “heart-healthy” lifestyle? Here are tips and guidelines that will help seniors and their families take control of their heart health.

Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

Staying active is one of the best ways to help prevent heart disease. Regular exercise should be an integral part of your daily routine. “Remember, an exercise regimen doesn’t have to be elaborate or long,” said Mullen. “Light to moderate exercise, for example, can have a significant impact upon your long-term health. Keep in mind that a simple walking program will pump oxygen to your heart and raise your heart rate, which is crucial, especially in older adults. A good rule of thumb: aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week.”

Monitoring your vital signs can also play a big role in reducing the risk of heart disease. Medical experts concur that it’s imperative to address the “big three:” high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Understanding what to look for and how to monitor results is an important first step.

High Blood Pressure

Uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the biggest risks for heart disease and other harmful conditions, such as stroke. It’s critical to get your blood pressure checked regularly as you get older. Aging changes in the arteries often cause high blood pressure in older age and can require medication. Your doctor can evaluate your situation, but it makes sense to become familiar with the norms and what range is healthy for you. Knowing your blood pressure numbers could help you live a longer, healthier life.

High Blood Cholesterol

It’s an undisputed fact that high cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease. Many people don’t realize that the same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower blood pressure can also help prevent you from having high cholesterol. Of course, high cholesterol can be inherited, but it’s frequently the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, which makes it preventable and treatable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and medication (if prescribed by a doctor) can help reduce high cholesterol.

Smoking

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. People generally associate cigarette smoking with breathing problems and lung cancer. Many people do not realize that smoking is also a major cause of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease. Cigarette smoking accounts for about one-fifth of all deaths from heart disease in the United States. Smokers have a two-to fourfold increase in coronary artery disease and about a 70 percent higher death rate from coronary artery disease than nonsmokers. It’s never too late to stop smoking. Quitting smoking, even in later life, can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer over time.

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

A balanced diet can help protect your heart, improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. However, don’t equate a healthy diet with a boring diet; healthy food can be delicious! The use of fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits will perk up any meal.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a balanced diet goes a long way in preventing heart disease. Guidelines for adopting a heart-healthy eating plan include:

Control Your Portion Size

How much you eat is just as important as what you eat. Eat larger portions of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, such as refined, processed or fast foods. This strategy can shape up your diet as well as your heart and waistline.

Eat More Vegetables and Fruits

Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals, low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits, like other plants or plant-based foods, contain substances that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you cut back on higher calorie foods, such as meat, cheese and snack foods.

Select Whole Grains

Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products. Or be adventuresome and try a new whole grain, such as whole grain farro, quinoa or barley.

Limit Unhealthy Fats

Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaques in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Choose Low-Fat Protein Source

Lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products, and eggs are some of your best sources of protein. But be careful to choose lower fat options, such as skim milk rather than whole milk and skinless chicken breasts rather than fried chicken patties. Fish is another good alternative to high-fat meats. And certain types of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides oil. Legumes — beans, peas and lentils — also are good sources of protein and contain less fat and no cholesterol, making them good substitutes for meat.

Reduce Your Sodium Intake

Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing sodium is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day (about a teaspoon of salt).

Plan Your Daily Menus in Advance

Create daily menus using the six strategies listed above. When selecting foods for each meal and snack, emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Choose lean protein sources and healthy fats and limit salty foods. Watch your portion sizes and add variety to your menu choices.

Last, but certainly not least, do indulge in your favorite foods. As there’s not one single food that can make you magically healthy, your overall dietary pattern –as opposed to specific foods –is really what impacts your health.

“While weight control is an important factor in maintaining a healthy heart, there’s no reason to deprive oneself, especially as one gets older,” said Mullen. ”Moderation is key.” She added, “This is the time in your life to enjoy eating. Allow yourself a treat every day!”