This Valentine’s Day (and every day), make sure to give your heart some love.

Being tuned into your heart’s health provides tremendous health benefits.

Your hardest working organ functions as a pump to deliver nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to 3 trillion cells, nonstop. From before you were born to your last moment in life, there’s no break or moment to rest, because your organs, including your heart, need a constant supply of blood. Yes, your heart pumps its own blood through its own arteries that nourish it.

If your heart is not working properly, just about everything in your body is affected. Heart failure is a general term that describes a weakening heart. And, if it fails, the entire body begins to shut down.

Heart disease

Heart disease is an umbrella term for diseases that affect the heart in different ways, such as:

Structure: Muscle or valves, and congenital (birth) defects

Circulation: Referring to the blood vessels, it includes high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the narrowing and blockage of the heart’s blood vessels by fatty plaques. Known as atherosclerosis, it is the leading cause of heart disease and deaths from it.

Rhythm: It has an intricate electrical system, serving as a switchboard for a steady, regular heartbeat. When awry, it beats too fast, too slow or in a chaotic manner that is unable to support sufficient or efficient pumping of blood.

Major factors that increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis: High cholesterol, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, “Type A” personality, unhealthy eating patterns, not managing stress and family history of heart disease. Except for the family history, all other risk factors are modifiable — can be eliminated or managed.

How to prevent it

Here are some steps to help protect yourself against cardiovascular heart disease:

Work with your doctor. Get a checkup, along with any screenings or blood work, to know your numbers and understand your specific needs.

Be active. Regular physical activity and exercise can put a dent in — even reversing — a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and chronic stress. If you’re diagnosed with heart disease, talk to your physician before starting any exercise program, so you can learn to monitor activity properly.

Heart-healthy diet. Consuming the right foods and drinks can help you control your weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Follow a dietary pattern that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy choices.

Control cholesterol. Elevated levels of bad cholesterol can clog your arteries, whereas elevated levels of good cholesterol may be protective against heart disease, stroke and kidney injury due to atherosclerosis. Know your cholesterol and fat levels; decrease bad cholesterol levels by minimizing saturated fats and eliminating trans fats; and speak with your doctor if cholesterol-lowering medications are right for you.

Manage blood pressure. When elevated, it causes hearts to work harder and damages blood vessels. A diet low in sodium and rich in foods containing potassium, calcium and magnesium may help prevent or normalize high blood pressure. There are several medications that can help manage it — they have maximal impact when lifestyle changes are also implemented.

Control blood sugar levels and diabetes. Chronically elevated blood glucose levels damage blood vessels. Proper control involves eating right, controlling your weight, exercising and taking medication(s) prescribed by your doctor. Lifestyle changes can result in a decreased need for medication, and in some cases, elimination of them.

Don’t smoke. Going smoke-free helps reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as cancer and chronic lung disease. It’s never too late to quit smoking, and research shows the body begins to heal following that last cigarette.

Manage chronic stress. Stress studies link behaviors/factors that increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, consuming alcohol, physical inactivity and overeating. Find smart, practical ways to manage your stress.

So, give your heart some love. Regardless of age, there are actions you can take to prevent, slow down or reverse heart disease. Research shows that even small changes to habits can have a great effect on your heart health. In fact, studies estimate 80% of heart disease can be prevented by lifestyle changes. Be vigilant and take action to love your precious heart.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.

This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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